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

Even though the editions since Lane's scholarly translation had progressed in the realm of visual imagination, the content had remained rather sterilized and prudish. It wasn't until the 1885-1888 publication of Richard Burton's sixteen-volume translation that themes of sexuality emerged, complete with extensive notes on topics like homosexuality, bestiality, and castration. Though Burton's original edition featured no pictures in order to avoid prosecution for obscenity, shortly after his death in 1890 a young friend and admirer of his by the name of Albert Letchford, who had trained in Paris as an orientalist painter, created 70 paintings, which eventually became the basis for the next edition of Burton's translation. With a keen sensibility for fantasy and a shared interest in the erotic to complement Burton's own, Letchford's artwork featured many nudes and were infused with sensuality. Ironically, Letchford contracted an exotic disease in Egypt and died at a young age.


Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897.

Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897

In the early 1900s, Anglophile Edmund Dulac illustrated the highly successful gift books Stories from the Arabian Nights (1907), Princess Badoura (1913), and Sindbad the Sailor & Other Tales from the Arabian Nights (1914), blending the British tradition of book illustration with the vibrant colors of Persian miniatures and motifs from Chinese and Japanese art. His artwork endures as arguably the most memorable and widely recognized visual footprint of Arabian Nights.


The Story of the Wicket Half-Brothers. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907

The Fisherman and the Genie. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907

The Princess Deryabar. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907

The Story of the Magic Horse. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907

In the early twentieth century, artists abandoned the obligation to historical and ethnographic accuracy, experimenting instead with the explosion of color and the cross-pollination of world mythologies. Illustrators like Danish artist Kay Nielsen looked to the fantastical monsters and whimsical landscapes of Asian folklore, weaving Buddhist deity iconography, Chinese cloud bands, and near-surrealist elements into the familiar stories.


Sheherezade. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917

The latter part of the twentieth century saw an even greater explosion of color, among which were the arresting illustrations of British artist Errol le Cain.


Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981

Visions of the Jinn explores these and many other treasures, as well as the fascinating historical and sociocultural context in which they were created, to paint a rich and vivid mosaic of the visual legacy of Arabian Nights.


This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Image credits: Oxford University Press

Aladdin's Picture Book Arabian Nights. Illustration by Walter Crane, 1878