Picture Books Aren’t Just For Children: Illustrated Texts in the Art Library

For many of us, our earliest memories of reading feature bedside fables with gorgeously illustrated editions of stories on dazzling fish, polite princesses, and crochety grandmothers. Our parents would tuck us in tightly and guide the way into fantasy worlds that thrilled our imaginations to the point of exhaustion. As we matured reading became a solitary practice, with regular perusing of children’s classics giving way to fevered examinations of canonical works considered to be more “adult.” Somewhere along this path the reading of texts that contained pictures, sadly, became an inappropriate symbol of prolonged adolescence or strangeness.  For those of you longing to take in a book or two featuring images while still feeling mature, despair no longer. Here is a sample of three classic works featuring images by famous artists to whet your illustrated palate.

The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.  (ART  LIB Folio PR 1850. 1896a )

Chaucer is world famous for his medieval cycle of pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales. Alongside the entirety of the Tales—rarely found in one volume—this collection also includes a variety of Chaucer’s poems, philosophical tracts and longer works, all printed in the original Middle English in which they were penned (believe me, reading “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s own tongue is an experience like no other).  Paired with these stories of adventure and comedy are the exquisitely lined prints of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Although they were created over five hundred years after the initial publication of Chaucer’s work, Burne-Jones’ illustrations perfectly capture the figures in the tales and facilitate a complete visualization of the people and events that make Chaucer’s writings so interesting.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "The Knyghtes Tale." Illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones













Dante’s Inferno; Dante’s Purgatory & Paradise.  (ART LIB  Folio PQ 4315.2. C4 & Folio PQ4315.13. C3 1883a)

The entirety of Dante Alighieri’s epic Divine Comedy is contained in these two volumes published in the 1800s. While the work is translated from the original Italian into English, it retains the rhythm and poetic nature of the original, with some helpful end rhymes to guide the reader through the labyrinth of the terza rima structure Dante himself invented. These volumes are lavishly illustrated (the first volume, consisting solely of the Inferno, contains around 70 images) with the engravings of celebrated French artist Gustave Doré.  Doré’s styles shift throughout the length of the epic, with his Gothic line-work and imagery lending an air of horror to Inferno and Purgatory and his lighter, more simplified drawings of Paradise provide a dazzling glimpse into Dante’s spectacular vision of Heaven. If you want to really view Dante’s vision of damnation and salvation, there’s no better way to do it than through the engravings of Doré.

Dante's Inferno, Canto VIII, lines 27-29. Illustrated by Gustave Doré











Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.   (ART LIB PR4611. A7 1998)

More closely related to the aforementioned children’s books is Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of a young girl who dreams of falling down a rabbit hole into a nonsensical land of magic and wonder. Although generally cited as a children’s book, Carroll’s play with language—rendered even more spectacular by the stylized typography of certain portions in the text—makes Alice’s story a thrill for adult readers as well. Juxtaposed with the text are photographs by the well-known artist Abelardo Morell.  Morell’s beautifully toned black-and-white- photographs consist of dioramas composed from cutouts of the famous Tenniel illustrations of Alice and are backgrounded by images of the actual book itself.   While they certainly don’t help to make sense of the insanity found in the original story, Morell’s photographs add a greater flair of comedy to Carroll’s classic and give the story a dimensionality that makes it even more enjoyable.

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventure in Wonderland. Photographs by Abelardo Morell

This list contains only a brief selection of our illustrated texts. For more information on other illustrated classic and contemporary works in the library collections, visit the Margaret M. Bridwell Art Library in Schneider Hall.

Written by Arts & Sciences senior Colton Wilson, student assistant in the Art Library.

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