"The Arabian Nights Man" - Golden Age Illustrator Edmund Dulac

22 October 1882, the French-born, British naturalised illustrator Edmund Dulac was born in Toulouse.

“… he would have chosen some dream city of the Orient for his birthplace, a Persian princess for his mother, and an artist of the Ming Dynasty for his father.” (Introduction to a New York exhibition of Dulac’s work)

Edmund Dulac: "The City of Deryabar"
from "Stories from the Arabian Nights" (1907)

Once upon a time, the line was blurred between picture books for children and illustrated editions of tales aimed at an adult audience. Not that the artists who created the works of art that illuminated the medieval books of hours or chivalric romances cared one little bit about the idea of pictures in books being suitable for children or not. Neither did publishers of the mass of printed creations with their woodcuts that swept across Europe during the media revolution of the 15th and 16th century after the invention of the printing press. The gorier the better was the maxim of most. Some 100 years later though, the first educational books for children appeared in the Netherlands, Comenius’ “Orbis Pictus”, something along the lines of a pictured encyclopedia for children and reading primers with letters assigned to animals, plants and people that began to parallel compulsory education in some European countries. But it was the discovery of folk and fairy tales as cultural assets that gave the go-ahead for the appearance of the illustrated childhood treasures and the expensive gift books with the artworks of the masters of the Golden Age of Illustration. With the technological quantum leaps in printing and reproduction techniques that became commonplace towards the end of the 19th century, the enchantingly sophisticated designs of these men and women, lines and colours as well, became an integral component of the book market, a far cry from the black and white steel engravings that were the peak of reproducible illustrations not even a generation before. And the gift books that came out every autumn in time for the Christmas sale changed more and more from garishly bound and expensively slipcased luxury editions of poetry and short novels aimed at well-off, educated ladies and gentlemen towards their offspring. The collections of fairy tales from the beginning of the century, usually sparsely pictured back then, reappeared together with genuine picture books, brought to life with imagery from Walter Crane to Beatrix Potter and Arthur Rackham, many of them making a living from illustrating children’s books that became crown jewels among the Christmas presents. Up to a point that they were collected and reissued for frontline soldiers when the age ended in the storms of steel and blood and terror of the Great War to give the tortured souls something to cling to, reminiscent of strong childhood memories and home. The illustrations of Edmund Dulac, the “Arabian Nights Man” were included in the “relief books”. They already had become something archetypical for dreaming oneself away, for old and young, during the 10 years since Dulac entered the scene in 1904. 

Edmund Dulac: "The Little Mermaid" (1911)

Orientalism and Japanese woodprints were all the rage in Europe when Edmond grew up in Toulouse. His uncle was an art dealer and brought the lad in contact with the imagery of far-away places and Edmonds fascination grew to a point were he began to learn Arabic and Chinese, his law studies forgotten, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and finally relocated to London, the Mecca of the Golden Age of Illustrations, the world of Beardsley, Crane and Rackham. His first commissioned works there were illustrations of fairy tales of a different kind, though, the works of the Brontë sisters, first and foremost Jane Eyre. Other classics of English and American literature followed, from Shakespeare to Poe and Hawthorne, but Dulac was most influential and best loved when he transposed the imagery of the “Arabian Nights” and Omar Khayyam into his singular illustrations. It became something of a paradigm change from the sweltry salon erotica depicting harems and slave markets of 19th academic art along with virile imagery of savage oriental warriors, hunting scenes, camel races and romantically bygone glories of ancient Egypt á la Ozymandias into the floating Art Noveau-influenced dreamlike scenes Dulac created with his illustrations. French literary fairy tales along with those of Andersen provided an equally fertile breeding ground for the French artist’s imagination who became a naturalised Britisher in 1912. In the ten years between his arrival in London and the outbreak of the Great War, Dulac became one of the top artists among a set of excellent illustrators, sought after by publishers and beloved by his audience, both children and adults. The line between picture books and illustrated texts for grown-up readers were blurred again and if only by keeping the actual buyers of the quite expensive books in mind that contained Dulac’s works, the children’s well-off and usually quite cultivated parents. 

Edmund Dulac "Little Girl in a Book" from "Fairies I Have Met" (1907)

Together with Rackham, Dulac developed a sophisticated watercolour mixed method to allow for the glamorously rich tones of his works as well as Rackham’s wan greys and browns along with the nuanced lines of both artists. It was their good fortune that print technology had developed to a degree that allowed almost faithful reproduction of the intricate works Dulac created, true to his influencers, on expensive Japanese paper only to add to the enhancement of his tones and textures. The distinctive ukyio-e style that influenced the great painters of the age as well, Manet, Whistler, van Gogh, his compatriot Toulouse-Lautrec to name but a few, along with the whole Art Nouveau style made the major impact on Dulac’s creativity, together with Mogul miniatures and Chinese artworks. And even among imagery inspired by Grimm and Andersen, these elements appear, upturned slippers, turbans, floating garments, pointed domes and crescent moons, set pieces he saw in the life when he visited the Arab East before the Great War, something of a self-affirmation of the mindscape and imagination of the East he had created for Western audiences. Styles and tastes changed already during his life and times, famously, and between the wars Dulac continued to work as an illustrator, fairy tales as well as literary classics, as caricaturist and stage and costume designer, quite like the miracle workers who were responsible for the wondrous appearance of the immensely popular Ballets Russes. Commercial graphics helped to pay the rent and a last illustration helped to keep his imagery in the mindscape of the public, a stamp he was tasked to create on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Sans turban, though. Dulac died in the same year.

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