The Whimsical Illustrations of Edmund Dulac

Edmund Dulac was a French British artist well-known for his book illustrations. He was one of the first to utilize color plates and integrate Orientalism into his paintings.

Mar 21, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

edmund dulac whimsical illustrations


Edmund Dulac was a French British illustrator and stamp designer. He was born in 1882 and grew up in Toulouse. Studying law originally, he decided to pursue an art education instead. He attended Ecole des Beaux-Arts before moving to London, where he received a significant commission to illustrate Jane Eyre at only 22 years old. That was the first of nine Bronte sisters’ works he illustrated. His involvement with The Pall Mall Magazine and the London Sketch Club around the same time connected him to well-renowned book and magazine illustrators. Leicester Galleries began selling his commissioned illustrations in an annual exhibition and the publisher Hodder & Stoughton included his paintings in annual illustrated gift books.


Edmund Dulac and the Snow Queen

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Edmund Dulac, via Internet Archive


Edmund Dulac proceeded to have a successful career producing illustrations for magazines like The American Weekly, WWI relief books, and novels like The Daughter of the Stars. Known for his stamp designs, he produced stamps for iconic UK moments, including one to honor the Coronation of King George VI and others that defined the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Here is a look into the whimsical artwork he created during the Golden Age of illustration (the 1880s-1920s) for legendary stories and fantastical fairy-tales.


The longest story fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen wrote was The Snow Queen, published in 1844. Danish Illustrator Vilhelm Pedersen created the original drawings for the book. Stories from Hans Andersen with illustrations by Edmund Dulac were published in London by Hodder and Stoughton in 1911, which included The Snow Queen. A battle between good and evil, it follows a child’s quest to save their friend from the cold Snow Queen and the darkness that entered him through a grain of a deceptive mirror created by the Devil.


dulac snow queen
Snow Queen on a Winter’s Night by Edmund Dulac, 1911, via Swann Galleries


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For these illustrations, Dulac used watercolor, gouache, pen, and ink on paper. One of his most recognizable paintings from the story comes from the chapter, Second Story: A Little Boy and a Little Girl. Titled “Snow Queen on a Winter’s Night”, it reveals a hidden Snow Queen, blended into the snowy background, and flying above the children’s quaint town. The caption reads:


“Many a Winter’s night she flies through the streets and peeps in at the windows and then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful patterns like flowers.”


Dulac captured the mysterious element of the Queen with broad brushstrokes to express her spiritual connection to nature. She embodied the forces of winter and therefore an enigma to the humans below. The monochromatic, blue-toned color scheme represents her control over the snow and the frigid power that she wielded. She is drawn to be beautiful but intimidating, as she hovers over the warmly lit houses and church. Dulac’s painting technique captures the flurry of snow and the stormy blizzards the Queen could summon.


The Dreamer of Dreams

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The Woman He Could Not Leave by Edmund Dulac, 1915, via Internet Archive


The last Queen of Romania was an English woman named Marie who was married to King Ferdinand I of Romania in the early 20th century. She was primarily a nurse but was passionate about writing, publishing 34 books and short stories throughout her life. In 1915, she wrote The Dreamer of Dreams, a fairy tale about the adventures of a royal painter who goes on a journey to discover a set of enchanting eyes. The artist follows his dream about the eyes, leading him to an encounter with an enchantress and resulting in the passionate and romantic emotions he experiences.


This was the second book of Marie’s that Dulac had illustrated, the first one being The Stealers of Light. He was drawn to old European tales such as these, so with his extensive painting background, this collaboration was a perfect fit. The Dreamer of Dreams included six tipped in color plates along with a cover and a title page created in an Art Nouveau style. Dulac integrated many patterns into this illustration characteristic of Art Nouveau: the rug, the pillows, and the woman’s necklace are a few examples.


This illustration shown is the second colored plate of the series and the caption says Eric lay now, as the lion used to lie, stretched at the feet of the woman he could not leave. The enchantress is wearing a draping dress of many colors and sits on a marble bench. The young artist wears black lays in the darker-toned colors of the folds of her dress. He desires to continue his quest but is trapped in the overwhelming but deceptive kindness of the woman. Dulac represents this well, with the moodier colors centralized around the youth who can’t escape her spell.


Le Papillon Rouge

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The Entomologist’s Dream by Edmund Dulac, 1909, via The Cabinet of Curiosity


Gérard d’Houville was a French novelist who wrote Le Papillon Rouge (The Red Butterfly), published in the French art magazine L’Illustration in 1909. It is a tragic story of an entomologist who is tortured by the fact that he can’t capture a blood-red butterfly for the woman he loves. The morbid ending reveals his death after the butterflies magically awake and fly away. The dark short story is up to interpretation; the butterflies’ intent could be one of freedom or vengeance as they escape captivity.


Similar to his other works, the overpowering color is blue in the illustration. This shade symbolizes the mystery of the situation; the character appears in shock, potentially having just awoken from sleep to this nightmare. Dulac painted the colorful butterflies in a way that captures their motion as if they are dancing and celebrating their long-awaited breakout. The moodiness of depicting this moment at nighttime adds to the unsettling anticipation of questioning the fate of the man who has lost it all. His discolored skin makes him look like he’s already close to death as if he’s an apparition himself. Dulac was a master of creating dreamlike scenes, and in this case, he produced a hallucinatory nightmare.


Arabian Nights

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Then for the last figure of all she drew out the dagger by Edmund Dulac, 1911, via Gutenberg


One Thousand and One Nights is a compilation of Middle Eastern folk tales written in Arabic from the Islamic Golden Age. The first English edition was translated in the early 18th century and was known as the Arabian Nights or The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. The connecting story between them all includes the ruler Shayryā and his wife Scheherazade. The collection is made up of prose, verses for songs and riddles, and poems.


Hodder & Stoughton released the First edition of Arabian Nights in 1906, illustrated by Edmund Dulac. In this English version, writer Laurence Housman retells the original stories. These include Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Fisherman and the Genie, and The Story of the Magic Horse. This edition includes 50 full-page colored plates. Dulac was experienced in drawing oriental designs, so this commission was fitting for his artistic style.


In Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves, one watercolor illustration Dulac created goes along with the caption reading Then for the last figure of all she drew out the dagger. The painting shows a woman named Morgiana dancing with grace as she holds a dagger. In the story, she proceeds to collect money from her onlookers and in a swift motion, stabs a man who acted as the main deceiver in the story. Dulac painted a look of focus and determination on the entertainer’s face, while he included two oblivious audience members to show she held all the power in that moment of secrecy.


The Tempest

edmund dulac tempest
The Tempest illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1908 via Flickr


English playwright William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest around 1610 and is one of the last plays he wrote alone. The story begins with a ship battling a storm at sea then transitions to a remote island, where a sorcerer lives with his daughter and two servants. It’s considered both a tragedy and comedy with romantic components as well. Some interpretations believe the sorcerer Prospero is Shakespeare’s version of himself.


The edition Dulac illustrated in 1908 includes 40 tipped-in color plates using watercolor, pencil, and ink. Originally published as Shakespeare’s Comedy of The Tempest, it’s known as one of the most successful illustrated books. He continued to integrate his signature blue color scheme, stating, The shadows in it are blue. Blue—the only blue, a blue to make you drunk. The founding scene in the play begins with the shipwreck, so this stylistic choice makes sense.


This illustration is found in ACT IV, scene 1, where the nymphs dance, and the goddess Iris speaks. The instruction for the actors reads Enter certain Reapers, properly habited: they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance. This scene lacks the color blue, indicating a less dark mood compared to the tempest that sets the stage. The intricate detail clearly outlines each nymph, peacock, and tree, emphasizing the significance of the natural world.


The Legacy of Edmund Dulac

edmund dulac tempest
Edmund Dulac, via Wikipedia


Edmund Dulac was a prolific illustrator of primarily fairy tales with an extensive portfolio of work that ranged beyond book illustration to stamp design. He was a significant figure in the Golden Age of Illustration. His drawings and paintings are associated with many familiar stories like Beauty and the Beast and The Emperor’s New Clothes. His Orientalist and Art Nouveau style and his pioneering of color bookplates marked his career as an artist. The new printing process at the time was defined by placing prints between pages instead of being bound to the spine. Dulac mastered this process, which revolutionized the newer genre of illustrated gift books. His legacy continues to influence the world of illustration to this day.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.