As part of my study of Tales from 1,001 Nights (trans. Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons) with my World Literature students, I wanted to examine some of the visual representations made by artists and illustrators of the different stories. The Arabian Nights have attracted many great artists and illustrators over the centuries. A selection follows, separated by the different stories. All quotations are from the Lyons translation.
King Shahriyar, Shah Zaman and Shahrazad (the frame tale)
This first one is by the Australian artist Arthur Streeton and is at the NGV here in Melbourne. Geoffrey Smith, writing on the NGV website, comments about the painting:
Streeton’s scintillating portrayal of a scantily clad, full-length figure in a transparent, flowing silk gown, with head averted from the viewer, invokes an exotic image of female beauty. The artist’s inclusion of a golden halo, normally reserved for religious iconography to denote a divine or sanctified person, resonates with a more Eastern philosophy, whereby it symbolised power rather than sanctity. Shown in Streeton’s Sydney Sunshine exhibition in Melbourne in December 1896, his risqué image personified the emerging ‘new’ woman of the 1890s, and captured the attention of contemporary reviewers:
№6, ‘Scheherazade,’ painted on panel, is Mr. Streeton’s only other figure picture, and she, in pose and expression, fully conveys the impression of the beautiful, clever and rather cunning woman who successfully held the attention of the brutal Caliph and saved her own and other lives.
I like how Shahrazad is in full storytelling flight in this one by Ferdinand Keller. The flowers in her hair and in the vase and the peacock feather fan and the squawking parrot add to the visual richness and sense of abundance.
Howard Oakley, writing at The Eclectic Light Company, says this about this striking version of Shahrazad:
During her years living on Capri, Sophie Anderson painted many works showing local people. There is no evidence, though, to suggest that she travelled to the Middle East where she might have painted Scheherazade, the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, but the Victorian fad for Orientalism made this a popular motif. Sir Richard Burton’s translation of these stories was published in 1885, suggesting that Anderson probably painted this portrait soon afterwards.
This illustration, with Shahriyar lifting the veil of Shahrazad is from the 1839 publication of The thousand and one nights, commonly called, in England, The Arabian nights’ entertainments. (A new translation from the Arabic, with copious notes. / By Edward William Lane. Illustrated by many hundred engravings on wood, from original designs by William Harvey.) There’s none of Streeton’s sexuality on display here.
From the frame tale, when Shahriyar and Shah Zaman encounter the jinni: “The jinni then opened the chest, taking from it a box, and when he opened this too, out came a slender girl, as radiant as the sun…” This illustration is by the Danish artist Kay Nielsen and there are more of his artworks below. At NPR, Laura Beltran Villamizar writes:
In the early 20th century, artists experimented with color and less realistic dimensions, and mixed the worlds of Eastern and Western mythologies. Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen, working in Europe during World War I, finished his own evocative version of A Thousand and One Nights. His mysticism-tinted take on the Arabian stories pushed visual storytelling to new heights.
Nielsen filled his illustrations with expressionist, nearly surrealist characters and whimsical landscapes, breaking the boundaries of what visual storytelling was supposed to look like. His use of bright reds and deep blues, of golden leaves and detailed floral elements, hinted at a mix of Asian folklore and Arab iconography, make of his work a revolutionary body of visual art.
But the illustrations were never published, and the watercolor images remained tucked away for more than 40 years. They were rescued from oblivion after Nielsen’s death in 1957 and sat unused for another 60 — until now.
Here’s the same scene depicted by the great British illustrator, Sir John Tenniel.
The Fisherman and the ‘Ifrit
French-born Edmund Dulac was only 25 years old when he was given the opportunity to illustrate a deluxe edition of the Arabian Nights for the gift market. I love the expression on the face of the ‘ifrit here.
This illustration is from The Arabian Nights Entertainments, selected and edited by Andrew Lang and translated from the French edition by Galland. We see a similar pose to the Dulac illustration, but I like the scale of the ‘ifrit here, which can’t be contained within the frame of the picture, and the inhuman scales on his legs. The Lyons translation observes: “it became an ‘ifrit with his head in the clouds and his feet on the earth” and Ford conveys the scale here.
I particularly love the illustrations of American Maxfield Parrish. You’ll see more of them later. This is from a 1929 publication. the expression on the face of the fisherman here and the city in the background lit in golden gues are particularly striking here.
The Porter and the Three Ladies
Embedded within the story of ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’ is ‘The Story of the First Dervish’ and this illustration by Kay Nielsen shows the Dervish’s cousin and his sister in their incestuous embrace.
From ‘The Story of the Third Dervish’: “A bird called a rukh will swoop on you and lift you up, before setting you down on a mountain, where you should slit open the skin and come out” (Malcolm C. Lyons, p. 90). This is another Kay Nielsen artwork.
From ‘The Story of the Lady of the House’: “I myself went to the castle, which turned out to be strongly fortified, and I then entered the royal apartments, where all the utensils were made of gold and silver. There I saw the king wearing robes of bewildering splendour, seated with his chamberlains, officers and viziers. When I approached, I found that he was sitting on a throne studded with pearls and gems, wearing cloth of gold, with every jewel gleaming like a star” (Malcolm C. Lyons, p. 97). In this artwork by Kay Nielsen I take it that it’s the king at the top of the image in his robes of bewildering splendour, while at the bottom right the lady encounters his son the prince.
The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves Killed by a Slave Girl
Here’s another example of the work of Maxfield Parrish. I love the lighting effect as he sits broodingly inside the cave.
The British artist William Heath Robinson published a children’s version of The Arabian Nights in 1903. The illustrations are utterly charming, even when people are being killed.
The Ebony Horse
In 1948 Marc Chagall produced a series of 13 lithographs based on four stories from The Arabian Nights. Chagall’s dreamlike art seems perfect to me for the stories.
Another Heath Robinson depiction for children. The ebony horse here is renamed as the magic horse.
Sindbad the Sailor
In ‘The Third Voyage of Sindbad’ our hero and his companions, in an echo of Odysseus and the Cyclops, find themselves captives of a giant, whose eyes they put out with iron spits heated on the fire. Parrish captures the giant sleeping as they plot, although he doesn’t include the description that “He had tusks like those of a boar, a huge mouth like the top of a well, lips like those of a camel, which hung down over his chest, ears like large boats resting on his shoulders, and fingernails like the claws of a lion.” (Malcolm C. Lyons, p. 330)
I love this image by Ivan Bilibin of Sindbad about to get shipwrecked once again. Bilibin was known for his illustrations of Russian folk tales and here he’s expanding out to the 1,001 Nights.
This famous episode of the old man who wraps his legs around Sindbad and forces him to carry him about the island is from the Fifth Journey.
The Story of Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp
We tend to associate the stories of the 1,001 Nights primarily with Baghdad, with excursions to locations such as Cairo and the Arabian peninsula. However, the story of Aladdin begins: “In the capital city of a rich and vast kingdom in China whose name I cannot at the moment recall” (Malcolm C. Lyons, p. 395). Aladdin’s antagonist, however, “was a famous magician who, so the authors of this story tell us, was an African” (p. 396). This illustration attempts to convey these aspects to a Western audience in an ‘Orientalist’ manner (as do many of the other artists shown here).
Another one by Ivan Bilibin, this depiction of Aladdin doesn’t portray him as stereotypically Chinese.
I love this more abstract illustration by British artist Errol le Cain from 1981:
And another scene from ‘Aladdin’ by le Cain: the border is particularly striking, as is the way your eye gets drawn into the centre of the image.
Vittorio Zecchin’s ‘Le mille e una notte’ canvases were painted in 1914 to decorate the dining room of the Hotel Terminus in Venice. The cycle, which was subsequently dismembered, is today considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Liberty style (as Art Nouveau is known in Italy) in Venice. I was lucky enough to see the full set displayed in the early 2000s on a visit to Venice and they’ve stayed with me ever since.
The great surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was commissioned in the 1960s to illustrate an edition of the 1,001 Nights. I find this illustration of a snake charmer to be particularly evocative. From the Folio Society website:
With their jinn and sorcerers, evocative locations and pervasive erotic charge, The One Thousand and One Nights have enthralled audiences for centuries. Although best known as a painter, Salvador Dalí illustrated more than one hundred titles and his imaginative power, and ability to transport the reader to an exotic other world, make him one of the great interpreters of this collection of stories. Dalí’s 50 illustrations are a blaze of vivid colours abounding with figures of humans, animals and curious monsters, shifting between the familiar and the disorientating.