The Power of Pictures
Friday, October 4, 2013 to Monday, December 16, 2013

Pictures and Words: Illustrated Stories

     Humans drew before they wrote, but even the most abstract rock art suggests a story. It is hard to imagine that early artists had no tales to tell about their pictures, or that their images were not intended make stories tangible, visible in ways that mere words – spoken or written – could not. In the millennia since, illustrated editions of literary classics have given physical form to verbal descriptions and shaped our sense of fictive worlds. Sometimes writers have been their own illustrators or worked closely with a visual artist. Other times, as in the medieval illumination of classical texts, illustrators worked long after an author’s death.

     Augustine of Hippo wrote the first portion of De Civitate Dei (The City of God) in 414. A Christian’s meditation on history and the distinctive realms of the spiritual and the corporeal, the text was widely copied in medieval Europe, surviving in nearly 400 manuscripts. Yale’s copy, made in early 15th-century Paris, features an illuminated miniature for each of the work’s twenty-two books. The text opens with a large, two-column depiction of the City of God and the City of Man, which contrasts the serenity and unity of the spiritual realm with the violent disarray of the material world. The artist expresses Saint Augustine’s principal theme that while Christians live in an imperfect, corrupt world, their origin and destiny lie elsewhere.


     In 1476 Jean Duchesne translated Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic Wars) into French for Jacques Donche, counselor of Charles the Bold of Burgundy.  Among the ten miniatures, which recall the work of Loyset Liedet of Bruges, is one of the surrender of Alesia and the flight of the Mandubii, an image of the battle in Burgundy that is generally regarded as Caesar’s final defeat of the Gauls.

The Author and Artist as Collaborators

     Illustration made visible the personality and forms of the realistic characters of 19th-century fiction and helped expand the audience for numerous authors. From the beginning of his career, Charles Dickens worked closely with the artists who provided the illustrations that accompanied his tales. Correspondence preserved in Beinecke’s Gimbel-Dickens Collection documents not only the close personal relationship Dickens maintained with George Cruikshank and Hablot Browne (Phiz), but also his role in shaping the visual representation of his characters.


     While most illustrated stories are commercial enterprises intended for a broad audience, readers sometimes create “illustrated tales” for personal satisfaction. Hammatt Billings illustrated the second London edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but Eugene Bauer painted nearly 100 watercolors in his copy. Ranging from small character sketches to more elaborate depictions of events from the story, Bauer’s images reflect his personal engagement with Stowe’s tale. Placed carefully in various parts of the book’s margins, the watercolors seem almost an exegesis of the text – a visual interpretation or illuminated guide.

Poetry and Pictures: Cutting Figurative Ties

     For much of the 20th century, poets and visual artists have experimented with integrating words, shapes, and visual forms, the more fully and richly to convey ideas and emotions. Concrete or visual poets, loosely related communities of practice, frequently employ idiosyncratic typography to reinforce or refocus poetic texts. Other postmodern poets have collaborated with abstract painters and experimental printmakers to create multi-media works that defy simple classification.

     Experiments in typography and design were hallmarks of the French poet, playwright, and novelist Guillaume Apollinaire. His Calligrammes, shown here in the second edition (Paris, 1930) was initially published in 1918. Apollinaire saw the volume as an “idealization of free verse poetry and typographical precision” at a time when the cinema and phonograph were poised to supplant print as principal means of cultural communication.

     While the German artist Kurt Schwitters produced realistic impressionist paintings throughout his life, he is best known for his avant-garde collages. His periodical, Merz, was influenced by the work of Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann and Tristan Tzara. Merz. 14/15 (1925) featured a typographical children’s story, “Die Scheuche typografisch gestaltet” (The Scarecrow Typographically Designed) by Schwitters, Käte Steinitz, and Theo van Doesburg.

The Comic Book

     The Victorian era offered numerous opportunities for imaginative artists to caricature material avarice, social climbing, and youthful indiscretion. Individual satirical prints had a legacy stretching backwards more than a century, but the emergence of lithography and the steam press made possible the inexpensive production of illustrated books of simple drawings which followed the painful if funny education of young innocents.

     While generations of satirical printmakers and cartoonists have exhibited a certain skepticism or cynicism about the integrity of power and high society, the decade of the 1960s saw an explosion of irreverent cartooning that mocked social convention and extolled defiance of traditional values. Australian Richard Neville, American Robert Crumb, and Frenchman Jean-François Bizot tapped into a trans-national youth movement which found inspiration in their often vulgar, frequently obscene, and always caustic depictions of decadence and their celebration of individual license.


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