The Influence of Illustration on Modern Art

Illustration art, forever shrouded by its tableau counterparts, is an art form as varied and fascinating as the stories it portrays. Welcome to the history and wonder of illustration!

Aug 21, 2020By Hazel Anna Rogers, BA English Literature, Shropshire Young Poet Laureate Award (2015)
tanglewood tales rubaiyat omar khayyam
Tanglewood Tales: Princess Rosalie by Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1920 (left); with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: The Blowing Rose by Edmund Dulac, 1909 England (right)


Illustration art is often dismissed under association with children’s books, yet it created the foundations for much of the art we know today. The diversity of the art form is as extensive as its history. Humans have always used images to tell stories, from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the animated cartoons we grew up to know and love. This is a study into the history of illustration art and how it has brought us some of the richest and most beautiful artworks in the world.


Where It All Started: Illustration Art In 15,000 B.C.

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The Yellow Horse, 17,000-15,000 B.C., Lascaux, via the French Ministry of Culture, Paris


In southwestern France near the village of Montignac, the Lascaux caves preserve the oldest illustrations mankind has found to date. These are a series of over 600 cave paintings believed to have been created around 15,000-17,000 B.C. and were discovered by four teenagers in 1940. The walls also hold about 1,500 engravings, which, along with the paintings, details the events and traditions of the Palaeolithic Era


Many other ancient forms of illustration art have endured the test of time, each representing the trajectory of the development of human creativity. The Greeks held painting in high esteem as a way to translate literature. This is known as ekphrasis, depicting stories in images, and is the earliest example of literary illustration. However, little of this art remains except for pottery illustrations, such as painted vases, and some Greco-Roman replicas of ancient Greek art


Throughout ancient Greek tradition, illustration developed away from the flat outlined figures of vase paintings and into far more intricate portrayals. This was thanks to artistic advancements of the Hellenistic period, such as artists’ models, which allowed for greater accuracy in illustration art. These hallmarks of artistic discovery and growth paved the way for modern-day illustration. 


Middle Age Illustration: The Resurgence Of Art And Culture

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Winchester Psalter: The Last Judgement, 12th century A.D., via The British Library, London

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In about 500 AD, the Roman Empire fell and the art and culture of the Western World fell into hundreds of years of standstill. Apart from protected works, namely, Norse and Viking works such as the Book of Kells, next to no new works of art were created up until the end of the 700s. At this time, Charlemagne became the ruler of the European tribe, the Franks, and Western Europe became partially united once again. Culture re-emerged in the form of ‘Carolingian’ art, a famed example of which was the Godescalc Gospels. This was an illuminated manuscript that used illusionism to create detailed naturalistic illustrations. It initiated a movement of lavish iconographic Biblical works that continued for hundreds of years. 


Illustrated books became an extravagance due to the expensive nature of artistic materials and were commissioned by the most wealthy of the Middle Ages. Some of the most popular illustrators of the 14th and 15th centuries were French artist Jean Fouquet and the Dutch Limbourg brothers. Then Limbourg brothers created the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, recognized today as the most famous example of the illuminated manuscript. 


Renaissance Illustration And The Start Of Mass-Produced Art

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Le devote meditatione sopra la passione del nostro signore by Pseudo-Saint Bonaventura, 1218-74 A.D., via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, perfected the mechanical printing press in 1452 which revolutionized art during the Renaissance period (14th-17th centuries). Illustration art could now be mass-produced, meaning the reproduction of images was no longer a painstakingly long endeavor. The artistic styles that led to the Renaissance from the Middle Ages were not drastically different. Illustrators were still commissioned by wealthy patrons, and illustration itself was still an expensive craft.


Illustration was held as a divine gift, and governments and churches would seek out the most highly skilled illustrators to create inspiring images. As Europe set out to explore and colonize the rest of the world, illustrators would be sent on voyages to draw the events of exploratory missions. These illustrations would then be returned and presented to the public. The high status of the illustrator thus continued throughout Europe’s ‘Age of Exploration’. But, soon would emerge a different class of illustrators, who were now exposed to illustration art and culture. With the printing press came the possibility for lower classes to encounter artwork like never before. A new wave of artists was coming.


Art Of The Industrial Revolution: Commercial Illustration

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Little Red Riding Hood, 1810, via The British Library, London 


The age of children’s illustration art began with street vendors during the fast-paced Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). Simple woodcuts and appealing images were printed into small “chapbooks” that became popular, cheap entertainment for working-class children. Various illustration styles began to develop throughout Europe, with elegant French depictions and German Baroque etchings proving especially popular. Popular American illustrations would come later in the 1800s. 


English publisher Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) created a studio specifically for commercial illustration printing, establishing a culture of illustration that proliferated literature of the time. Newspapers and books became central to launching the illustration profession that came to height during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of illustration (1880-1930 and onwards).  


The Golden Age Of Illustration

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The Snake Charmer by Rene Bull, 1845-72 A.D., via The Illustrated Gallery


During the pre to post World War I period, illustration hit a peak of popularity worldwide. Illustrators became more specialized in style and content, and illustration art was detailed in everything from poetry to magazines. American advancements in printing led to even greater distribution of images and illustrated news and literature were circulated like never before. Millions of copies of images were seen across the globe in the form of accessible, cheap entertainment. Illustration art had been brought to the masses.


Various schools were set up to teach the art of illustration, such as the infamous Howard Pyle school, but many illustrators were self-taught. Many also came from humble beginnings, a far cry from the upper-class artists that had prospered in illustration’s past. Exposure to art led to greater worldwide creativity from all backgrounds, races, and genders. Illustration art had been reborn, and with it came some of the greatest artists we know and love today. 


British Illustrators

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The Dance in Cupid’s Alley by Arthur Rackham, 1904, via The Tate, London


The illustration art that came from Britain during the Golden Age was as rich and varied as it was extensive. John Batten (1860-1932) was one of the artists whose works reached notoriety in the landscape of English Illustration. Batten studied at the Slade School of Fine Art under Alphonse Legros. His highly detailed and atmospheric linework proved exceedingly popular in depicting fairy tales, and his reputation bloomed worldwide. Batten’s work on Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights (1893) and English Fairy Tales (1890) shows his inexhaustible creativity, talent, and imagination.


Another prolific British illustrator from the Golden Age and the poster child for the ‘gift book’ trend of the era was Arthur Rackham. Born in the suburbs of London, Rackham worked as a clerk until the age of 36, when he finally decided to divert his career into illustration. His delicate watercolor line illustrations are both haunting and bordering on the surreal, as is characteristic of the fairy tale. Rackham’s ink-rich style was popular with all ages, and his art was chosen to illustrate some of the highest esteemed works of English Literature. Shakespeare, The Wind in the Willows, and Rip Van Winkle, along with numerous fairy tales were all subjects of Rackham’s pen. 


American Illustrators

tanglewood tales princess rosalie
Tanglewood Tales: Princess Rosalie by Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1920, via Wikimedia


Many of the most popular American illustrators during this period were known for their interpretations of history, war and the ‘American Dream’. Howard Pyle (1853-1911), often known as the father of American Illustration, was deeply instrumental in producing the now-standard image of the ‘pirate’. His eye for movement in depicting maritime and battle tales was highly appealing to the American people. His work was equally suited to folklore as to the exploits of cowboys and knights, and he quickly became one of the most famous illustrators of the era. Pyle set up the Howard Pyle School of Art in the 1900s which trained many other prolific illustrators of the period. 

Though her career was short-lived, American illustrator Virginia F. Sterrett (1900-1931) impacted the world of illustration with a highly different approach to Pyle. In a landscape dominated by male illustrators, Sterrett produced poignant and timeless works that are still highly regarded today. Her work was exquisite, and despite her lack of artistic schooling, her dreamlike representations rivaled other American illustrators. Sterrett’s magical brushwork illustrated the likes of the Comtesse de Segur’s Old French Fairy Tales at the age of 20. She was commissioned for Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales less than a year later. Her interpretation of The Arabian Nights is deemed her finest work, a haven of delicate brush and pencil work and mesmerizing color. Due to her fragility of health, Sterrett died of tuberculosis, and we must but wonder at what she could have created had her career spanned further. 


European Illustrators

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Stories from Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac, 1911, via Harrington Books, Royal Tunbridge Wells


Variety in illustration style and technique was not only prolific in Britain and the Americas during the Golden Age. Europe gifted us many of the finest illustrators of the era, along with many new and highly experimental approaches to storytelling by words. One of these illustrators was Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany (1882-1955). His creative endeavors spanned illustration, writing, mural work, portraiture, and art film direction. His work with line drawing, oil and watercolor took beautifully to the subjects of mythology, fairy tales, poetry, and novels. Pogany’s diversity in style and color makes a singular style in his work impossible to pinpoint. 


Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) was a French illustrator known for his refined ‘jewel-like’ designs that translated beautifully into the Eastern subjects he most enjoyed painting. Dulac came to England in 1905, and his illustrations quickly became as popular as his British contemporaries. His decorative, colorful approach to illustration translated flawlessly his works, including The Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor, and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The elegance with which Dulac treated Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales was unprecedented, and his mastery of surreal beauty is still marveled at today. 


Illustration Art: A Legacy

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Roald Dahl’s The BFG by Quentin Blake, 1982 England, via Quentin Blake’s Website


This article has mentioned but a fraction of the creative genius of illustrators during the Golden Age of Illustration and the illustrators before and thereafter. The influence of illustrators on the art world was tremendous despite their lower status to gallery artists due to the commercial purpose of their illustrations. The significance of illustration art can be seen in Walt Disney’s works, Marvel comics, Dreamworks’ films and gaming animation. Illustration art helped to create a fantasy world that still endures into the modern-day. Illustration shaped the art of the future with its experimentalism, mastery and subject depth.

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By Hazel Anna RogersBA English Literature, Shropshire Young Poet Laureate Award (2015)Hazel is in her third year of English Literature at the University of Brighton. She studied one year of French and Japanese at the University of Leeds, and since worked abroad in Paris and Greece. She became Shropshire Young Poet Laureate in 2015 after which her poetry was published. She enjoys writing both creatively and academically, and has particular interests in non-English literature, Art History, Music, Anthropology, Literature of Antiquity and Philosophy. Her native tongues are English and French. She is also a passionate classical piano player and cold water swimmer.