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Volume 30, Number 4July/August 1979

In This Issue

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Arabian Nights - and Art Nouveau

Written by Rebecca Bruns
Photographed by Anne Turner Bruno
Additional illustrations by Hodder & Stoughton LTD., London

Scheherezade herself must have appeared to Edmund Dulac. In a dream, perhaps, in which she kissed his eyelids. Where else could he have learned to see the things he saw? Faraway places. Exotic peoples. The mirages of domed and minareted cities. How else could he have known the look of an Eastern paradise? The curl of the last tendril blossoming in an Arab courtyard? The tilt of a crescent moon?

And he did seem to know. Whole generations saw his paintings and agreed, "Yes, this is what the East must be like"—and dreamt of it themselves.

Not many people remember Edmund Dulac any more. Like Kipling in literature, time and fashion have passed him by. But in the early 1900's, the name Dulac won instant nods of recognition and enchanted sighs of approval. For Dulac was one of turn-of-the-century Europe's most celebrated illustrators—with a special distinction. In a day when elves, fairies and Arthurian knights filled England's books, Dulac put readers on a magic carpet and showed them his visions of the enchanted world of flying horses and magic lamps that in softer times beguiled the West. At his peak, Dulac's publishers couldn't get enough of him—and he couldn't get enough of the East. Even his Illustrations for European stories—"Beauty and the Beast," or "The Little Mermaid"—borrowed details from the East: turbans, turned-up slippers, pointed arches, Moorish mosaics and courtyards, and oases set against starry desert twilights. Though he didn't even set foot on Eastern soil until years after his first illustrated tales from "The Thousand and One Nights," Dulac portrayed that world of myth and legend as if he'd been born in it.

In fact, he was born in Toulouse, France, in 1882. He didn't show any exceptional artistic bent until the age of 15. By the time he'd decided he wanted to be an illustrator, his parents had packed him off to law school. The career of an artist, they said, was financially precarious.

But Dulac had made up his mind. He studied art on the side and quietly plotted his escape to England—where the 19th century was greeting the 20th with technological and stylistic breakthroughs: color printing processes and, an outgrowth, the lush and lucrative Art Nouveau that turned the books of the day into treasures to keep forever.

As rumors of the lively London art world drifted across the Continent—the fame of Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Ricketts and Arthur Rackham—Dulac prepared to migrate. He studied English, adopted spats and a cane, and changed the spelling of his name from the French "Edmond" to the English version with a "u." And although he quit law school and won a scholarship to study art in Paris, his heart looked toward England. Classmates nicknamed him l'Anglais, and that suited him better.

At last, he crossed the Channel, portfolio in hand. It was 1904 and he was 22 years old, unknown and ambitious. Yet three years later, l'Anglais had become the famous "Arabian Nights Man," the man behind 50 dazzling little watercolors unlike anything even he had ever done before. Those paintings raised him to prominence almost overnight.

They also established the Dulac style—decorative, diminutive, rich in detail and in storytelling content. Persian miniatures, which constitute some of the most resplendent manuscript illustrations in all of art history, can also be described by those same adjectives—and indeed, Dulac always admired Persian miniatures, and in general favored Eastern art over Western. He was part of the Art Nouveau movement and certainly a product of his time, but his work owed a great debt to the art of India, China and especially Persia. Unlike his contemporaries, who played up the sinuous, naturalistic lines that are Art Nouveau's hallmark, Dulac emphasized design, color and texture. Like his Eastern counterparts, he was a master at evoking atmosphere, if not action.

One of his favorite tricks was dropping jewels into a picture to make it shimmer. His skies and walls are studies in marble and opal; the foreheads and fingers of his characters are lit with tiny dots of light, like pearls or diamonds; the edges of wings, books, pots and leaves glow with the brilliance of rubies, amethysts and jade. Though the subjects he illustrated ranged from novels by the Brontë sisters to the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Dulac painted more pictures on Eastern themes than any other kind. Some of his last paintings, in fact, were magazine covers based on the Arabian Nights—a theme he returned to time and again during his 44-year career, in a total of 99 paintings. Even when commissioned to decorate the Royal Albert Hall for a ball, he played his famous trump card, and transformed the hall into a glittering vision of Aladdin's cave.

Yet it was only after his first set of illustrations for the Arabian Nights was behind him that he set out to visit the Arab East. Before that, he must have immersed himself in intimate study of the culture—its costumes, street scenes, domestic life, architecture, landscapes, textiles, ceramics, carpets and endless accoutrements—to give his illustrations authenticity The trip itself, the justification of his vision, was his first beyond France and Britain. It was 1913; he was 31. Before him were the shores he had visited only in his mind, but his arrival there represented a homecoming. It was love at second sight.

In his journal, he carefully recorded every detail, from "the flat roof, palms [and] cubes of all shades of white, blue and ochre" to the "baggy breeches with short stockings and sometimes white or yellow top-boots, wide belts and stomachers... flowered shirt with kerchief around the head...." In Tunis, the illustrations that had made him famous seemed to spring out from every corner of the suq: merchants sitting cross-legged in their niches, Bedouins wandering up the alleys, the tantalizing patchwork of fabrics, odors and Islamic decorations.

"Dulac experienced the joy of arriving at the source of his material," writes Colin White, his biographer. "He made a number of costume sketches, noting especially the women in their yashmaks... and the well-shaped eyes 'with eyebrows joining artificially' ( a detail he later incorporated into his illustrations). He saw his first muezzin... and enthused over 'the cooks, the sweetmeats and their curiously fat vendors,'  [and] the girls in baggy pantaloons..., a scene which he worked up into a brilliant watercolor..."

In his next books, "Princess Badoura" (the last of Scheherezade's stories) and "Sindbad the Sailor and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights," Dulac's great trip comes through in a brighter color scheme, greater attention to details and patterns, a flatter perspective and a general symbolic mood—also the result of Dulac's increasing interest in Persian miniatures.

Persia arrived at these artistic elements just as Dulac did, by assimilation. Centuries of conquest and trade had brought many cultural influences from Byzantium, Syria, Abyssinia, Egypt, and China. Stiff, stoic Byzantine people stare from some miniatures; delicate, curling Chinese clouds drift through others. By the 14th century, some of the most gorgeous paintings ever conceived were illuminating literary and scientific texts in Persia, Turkey and Mogul India.

His exposure to Persian miniatures had had a marked impact on Dulac's illustrations, and had inspired him to explore calligraphy Even in some of his first sketchbooks, dating back to his student days in France, Arabic letters dance beside their French equivalents. Over the years, he taught himself to write Chinese, Hebrew, Persian and even Malagasy with elegant facility He could also turn out Japanese watercolor paintings, Gothic "woodcut" drawings and Chinese brushstroke sketches as graceful as the styles they imitated. To complete the effect, he often signed his name in exotic script.

Calligraphy and abstract design together form the core of Islam's artistic heritage, and it is this aspect of Islamic art that subtly entered the Art Nouveau movement, by way of the arabesque line. Art Nouveau's prolific ornamentation, too, has a lot in common with the profuse decoration that, hundreds of years earlier, was adorning all facets of Islamic art, from the empty spaces of manuscript margins to ceramic bowls, the tiled walls of mosques and the woven expanse of carpets. (See Aramco World, November-December, 1978; July-August, 1977; May-June, 1976).

Unfortunately, Dulac never combined his lovely and complementary talents into a book—although the prospect appealed to him immensely Around 1918 he requested from his good friend, the Irish poet W B. Yeats, specific suggestions for "something very delicate, with flowers, birds and insects." Dulac dismissed St. Francis of Assisi as his theme, and briefly considered doing a book on the life of the Virgin Mary. Maybe the range of possibilities was too vast, for Dulac was never a fast worker, and equally slow in his deliberations. We can only guess what other themes passed through his mind, but in the end nothing ever came of them—the unified work that might have been Dulac's magnum opus was never created.

Despite this, Dulac, and the Art Nouveau style itself, took more than one cue from the East in the art of book making. Book production in the Islamic world was a full-scale industry. According to an Arabic manuscript in the National Library in Vienna, it involved nine separate branches of craftsmanship besides calligraphy: painting, leafcutting, gilding, drafting, binding, preparing the gold-sprinkled paper, designing of lined borders, restoring of old manuscripts, and assembling of albums. Even with machines doing much of the work, Art Nouveau books required the same meticulous craftsmanship from their illustrators, printers, binders and assemblers, and the lavishly illustrated "gift books" that came out at Christmas time demanded still more care. They were often the size of dictionaries, bound in calf-skin, with gold-embossed covers, heavy vellum pages, and illustrations tucked like little masterpieces behind sheets of tissue.

Dulac was always this meticulous, insisting on perfection in the way he worked and in the finished product. His drawing desk was fastidiously arranged, with never a stray pen or a streak of ink. Like the Islamic masters, who often drew from precise formulae, Dulac clung to a code of his own, working up his illustrations, like them, from transparent sketches that could be overlaid and shuffled around until the exact composition materialized. Like Islamic illustrators, who prided themselves on using the most flawless materials, Dulac chose the cream of imported Japanese papers to enhance his satiny tones and textures. Bookcovers, inside page decorations, headings and borders rolled from his brush. For one of his later works, Alexander Pushkin's "The Golden Cockerel," he even devised mockups of the pages, with instructions for placement of text and designs.

In "Au Royaume de la Perle" (The Kingdom of the Pearl), a nonfiction book on the history of pearls, Dulac painted swirling silver and gold washes over many of the watercolors, an idea prompted by Persian manuscripts. This technique made reproduction difficult and restricted the book to a limited printing, but the 10 miniatures were critically acclaimed as "gems of their kind." The Pearl paintings more closely resemble Indo-Persian miniatures than anything else Dulac ever did, and they were also his last illustrations in the gift book genre. His biographer cans The Pearl "the swan song of the gift book, and there could not have been a more splendid finale."

What was Dulac's legacy to the future? Diane Klemin, in "The Art of Art for Children's Books," answers from the illustrator's point of view: "... the present renaissance of children's book illustrations began with the [early 20th-century] picture book... Today [some artists] illustrate with the brilliance, scope and spirit of the late Edmund Dulac, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham and N. C. Wyeth."

Yet Dulac was not primarily an illustrator of children's books. It is certainly true that most of his work did spring from fantasies: the three Arabian Nights books, "Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales" in 1910, "Stories from Hans Andersen" in 1911, and many others. But he also "set to pictures" more mature—and equally fantasy-rich—literature: Shakespeare's "TheTempest" in 1908, "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" in 1909, and Poe's "The Bells" in 1912.

It was Dulac's good fortune to live in a golden age of fantasy, to be around when romance was king and the public willing to pay for painted kingdoms. The three-color printing process developed by Carl Hentschel of London facilitated accurate reproduction of color illustrations for the first time in history, and made illustrated books available at a reasonable price. And pictures were what people wanted: watercolor windows on realms of fantasy. The early 20th-century impulse was to gaze back longingly at medieval times, when the Arthurian legends were born in the West and the Arabian Nights rose in the East. Gift books found their subjects in the imaginary past, in tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, in "Alice in Wonderland" and Shakespeare's more fanciful plays, in myths and Gothic mysteries and tales of adventure and heroism set on distant shores—the further from reality the better.

For about two decades, gift books fed society's romantic appetite and exalted the art of bookmaking. Coffee tables and bookcases creaked with lovely volumes, illustrators prospered, publishers grew fat. The London firm of Hodder and Stoughton commissioned Dulac to illustrate some 25 books between 1907 and 1918. Arthur Rackham, Dulac's chief rival, illustrated more than 50. But by the 1920's, the gift book declined, and a new generation of books and illustrators took over.

Today bibliophiles are taking a second look. Publishers have reissued early 20th-century gift book illustrations in paperback form. Original giftbooks have become collectors' items, meriting special places among libraries' rare volumes and commanding steep prices. A signed edition of "Stories from the Arabian Nights," for example, with Dulac's 50 color plates, now sells for nearly $500, according to one reference. A signed edition of the "Princess Badoura" giftbook, with only 10 Dulac plates, is listed at $135, and a signed copy of "Stories from Hans Andersen" has sold for over $400. Even early editions of Dulac's unsigned books are priced at close to $100—and this despite the fact that Dulac is still overshadowed by the more prolific Rackham.

Dulac could certainly have used today's vote of confidence—and today's prices—when his career was faltering in the 1920's. After illustration assignments dried up, he turned to portraits, political cartoons? magazine covers and even the painstaking design of stamps and currency Art Deco replaced Art Nouveau, and Dulac's work grew flatter, more stylized, full of fresh, unrestrained color. But no matter how he kept up with the times, his heyday had passed. Toward the end—he lived to be 71—the Limited Editions Club of New York was his financial salvation. The club published beautiful books in the old gift-book tradition, and offered to pay Dulac handsomely for illustrating several volumes.

In 1953, Dulac was at work on the pictures for Milton's "Comus" when a friend stopped by. There was another, invisible vistor too, a gaunt gray fellow in shabby clothes whom Dulac had painted many times. Flamboyant as always, despite his age, Dulac cleared the floor to demonstrate his flair for flamenco dancing, stamped his feet with Spanish gusto, and collapsed. The gaunt visitor gathered him up: "Scheherezade invites you home," he said.

Rebecca Bruns, a free-lance writer and photographs minored in art at the University of New Orleans and has shown her own paintings in 17 exhibits since l971. She has also taught music and written for Dixie, a Sunda supplement in New Orleans.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the July/August 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1979 images.