A Visual History of Arabian Nights

Different illustrators from across history offer their fantastical interpretations of a classic tale.


Among 2011′s best sort-of-children's books was a magnificent volume culling the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales -- a visual history of some of the most memorable storytelling ever published. Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights is a remarkable tome that applies a similar lens to another infinitely influential piece of timeless storytelling, whose impact spans from the poetry of Goethe and Rilke to the contemporary fiction of Borges and Proust to the visuals and narratives of video games.

Though the first edition of Arabian Nights contained no pictures, the late 18th century saw a flourishing of illustrated editions, the first of which were almost comically amiss in their visual depictions of Arab culture, most notably a widely pirated 1714 edition with engravings by Dutch artist David Coster, who had no grasp of the cultural differences between medieval European and Islamic cultures, so he portrayed the characters in European dress, on European furniture, amidst European architecture.


Shahrazad tells her story to Shahryar, while her sister Dunyazad is listening. Other stories occupy the smaller frames, including 'The fisherman and the jinn.' Illustration by Dutch artist David Coster, 1714

In the subsequent decades, other artists took a similarly hazy approach to exoticism. It wasn't until the 1839-1841 publication of The Thousand and One Nights, translated by ethnographer Edward William Lane, who had spent several years in Egypt himself, that the stories began to reflect the Arab world with respectable accuracy. Lane, who aspired to make the text an educational introduction to everyday life in the Middle East, hired acclaimed British engraver William Harvey to do the artwork and saw to its accuracy by giving Harvey historical engravings of Egyptian and Moorish architecture to copy, approaching the project as an educational primer rather than a visual journey of the imagination.


Illustration by William Harvey, 1841

The first unabashedly imaginative edition of the Victorian age came in 1865. Titled Dalziel's Illustrated Arabian Nights Entertainments, it featured engravings by a number of notable artists from the era, including perhaps most notably Sir John Tenniel, famous for his whimsical and brilliantly comical illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published that same year.


Sidi Nouman's vengeance on his wife. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865


The sleeping genie and the lady. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865

The first color take on the tales came Walter Crane in his 1876 Aladdin's Picture Book. Crane was also among the first to consider the visual tastes of children, reining in a new era of designing storytelling for young readers.

"Children, like ancient Egyptians, appear to see things in profile, and like definite statements in design. They prefer well-designed forms and bright frank colour. They don't want to bother with three dimensions. They can accept symbolic representations. They themselves employ drawing... as a kind of picture writing and eagerly follow a pictured story." ~ Walter Crane

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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