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Fairy Tales and Fables

The transformation of illustration in the long 19th century
Susana Montañés-Lleras, Guest curator and PhD candidate in Art History at Case Western Reserve University
February 15, 2024
Don Quixote . . . in his Blind and Rash Endeavors, 1919. Edmund Dulac (British, 1882–1953), Hodder and Stoughton (London, 1923-). 1956.726

Fairy Tales and Fables: Illustration and Storytelling in Art explores the history of book illustration through rarely seen works on paper from the museum’s collection and local libraries. On view are images by pioneers such as Arthur Rackham, who helped shape fantasy illustration as we know it today. 

When I was young, I loved to sit with my mother as she read me children’s books. Although sometimes I chose books for their stories, I was also drawn to beautiful, humorous, mysterious, or richly detailed illustrations. As I grew older, this experience led to my interest in art history and curatorial work—including the current exhibition. This show explores how technological and social changes during the 1800s and early 1900s led to the creation of many of these books and to fascinating experiments in publishing by leading modern artists. 

A print, in blue, of three turkeys in a tree with a dog  barking at them
The Fox and the Turkey Hens from The Fables of La Fontaine, 1733.  Jean-Baptiste Oudry (French, 1686–1755). Brush and black ink and gray wash, heightened with white gouache, blue ink, and framing lines in brown ink on blue laid paper; sheet: 31 x 26 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1977.93 

Book production changed radically between 1750 and 1950, the years encompassed by Fairy Tales and Fables. Thanks to industrialization, cities were growing rapidly, as was literacy, leading to a demand for books and other printed materials. As a response, all aspects of the publishing industry—from the manufacture of paper and ink to the distribution of the finished volumes—were modernized or mechanized. The most significant changes were to printing technology. 

Unchanged since its invention around 1440, the printing press was transformed during the 1800s. While an experienced commercial printer at the end of the 1700s could produce about 200 impressions per hour, by the end of the 1800s, this number increased to close to 20,000 pages per hour. In this new market, illustration allowed publishers to differentiate themselves, so artists and printers developed new techniques—including lithography, wood engraving, and photomechanical processes—that helped reproduce designs with accuracy and ease. These changes paved the way for the illustrated books, magazines, and periodicals that we recognize and read today.

a knight in a tunic fighting a gigantic snake
Alarums and Excursions from The Golden Age, 1899. Maxfield Parrish (American, 1870–1966). Brush and black and gray wash, with white gouache, over graphite and framing lines in pen and black ink on beige wove paper; sheet: 37.5 x 24.8 cm. Bequest of James Parmelee, 1940.723

Fairy Tales and Fables reveals how artists approached such challenges and opportunities as they illustrated fables, fairy tales, poetry, plays, novels, and modern literature for magazines, newspapers, and books. The illustration process was difficult; it usually required the involvement of many people—artists, engravers, editors, printers, and publishers—and resources, so many of the period’s most ambitious volumes were never finished, or took years to produce. This is demonstrated in works associated with early illustrated publishing projects, such as a finished drawing by Jean-Baptiste Oudry of a fox stalking turkey hens published in a luxury edition of The Fables of La Fontaine (1755–59) more than two decades after its original creation. 

Prints and drawings from ventures that took advantage of technological developments are also featured, including finished drawings ready for reproduction by renowned illustrators like Edmund Dulac and Maxfield Parrish. Well-known modern artists such as Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall also contributed to the changing representation of many famous stories; the exhibition showcases print portfolios related to their illustration projects. Together, the works on view reveal how these artists shaped the fields of not only illustration but also literature, creating iconic images that we still find on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.