What Are Your Favorite Books Illustrated by Famous Artists?

March 31, 2020

There is something truly mesmerizing when great artists and great authors creatively unite. Throughout history, many famous artists have been commissioned to illustrate works of literature, bringing familiar stories to new life with beautiful drawings.

Reading classic books through the eyes of iconic artists can only enrich the experience, offering a new appreciation for the genius of both author and artist.

From Dalí and Chagall to Kusama and Hockney, we present you a list of 20th-century artists who have worked their magic to visualize masterworks of literature for their readers.

Featured images: The Little Mermaid Illustrated by Yayoi Kusama; David Hockney, Six fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, 1969; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Salvador Dalí, via hyperallergic.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

David Hockney - Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

In 1969, the celebrated contemporary artist David Hockney did some beautiful etchings for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Originally published in 1970, the book features weird and enchanting drawings for The Little Sea HareFundevogelRapunzelThe Boy Who Left Home to Learn FearOld Rinkrank, and Rumpelstilzchen.

These haunting and scary, yet beautiful black and white illustrations are characterized by the artist’s ample use of negative space, encouraging the imagination to wander freely.

Featured image: David Hockney - Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, 1969, via pinterest.

Henri Matisse - Ulysses

In 1935, Henri Matisse was commissioned to illustrate an edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses for subscribers to the Limited Edition Club in America.

The original limited edition was a glorious leather-bound tome with 22-karat gold accents, gilt edges, moire fabric endpapers, and a satin page marker, while a less rare edition was reissued in 1996.

It’s interesting that Matisse made his illustrative etchings without ever having got around to reading the book itself. Instead, he based his drawings on six episodes from Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, based on the ancient Greek hero known as Ulysses in Roman mythology.

Featured image: Left: Henri Matisse - Circé, from Ulysses, 1935 / Right: Henri Matisse - Polyphème, for Ulysses by James Joyce, 1934, via Wikipedia.

Salvador Dalí - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

New York’s Maecenas Press-Random House published Lewis Carroll’s famous book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1969, illustrated by none other than the iconic artist Salvador Dalí.

Featuring 12 heliogravures, one for each chapter of the book, as well as a four-color etching as the frontispiece, the volume has become one of the most sought-after Dalí suites of all time.

In this impressive edition, Carroll’s world of wordplay, whimsy, and mathematics was perfectly matched with Dalí’s surrealistic vision.

Featured image: Left: Advice From a Caterpillar and Down the Rabbit Hole, Salvador Dalí's Illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, via thisiscolossal.com.

Andy Warhol - The Little Red Hen

Andy Warhol was making a living by working as a freelance artist during the 1950s.

In 1958, he illustrated a story titled The Little Red Hen for Best of Children’s Books #15, featuring vibrant technicolor artwork, opposed to the warm pastel color schemes of the era.

This unique edition offers an interesting preview into Warhol’s striking aesthetics he subsequently became famous for.

Featured image: Andy Warhol's Illustrations for The Little Red Hen, 1958, via brainpickings.org.

Pablo Picasso - Lysistrata

In 1934, George Macey, who founded the Limited Editions Club in 1929, commissioned Pablo Picasso to illustrate a special edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Greek comedy about a woman who convinced her countrywomen to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers in order to end the Peloponnesian War.

Picasso’s drawings render several scenes as tender, softly sensual tableaux, characterized by his signature style of simple lines and expressive sensuality.

Featured image: Aristophanes' Lysistrata, illustrated by Pablo Picasso, 1934, via openculture.com.

Aubrey Beardsley - Salome

A pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement who forever changed the course of the graphic arts, Aubrey Beardsley was commissioned by a British magazine to create a single drawing based on the original French publication of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome.

The drawing was rejected by the magazine for being too daring, but after it made its way to Wilde, the writer offered him to create ten full-page illustrations and a cover design for the English edition.

Characterized by his stark black-and-white aesthetic, his drawings are in an intimate dialogue with Wilde’s text.

Featured image: Aubrey Beardsley's Illustrations for Oscar Wild's Play "Salome", via victorianweb.com.

Yayoi Kusama - The Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic fairy tale The Little Mermaid has received a visual makeover in 2016. This familiar story was brought to new life with beautiful drawings made by the acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama.

Employing her recognizable endlessly repeating forms, Kusama created densely patterned, undulating line drawings that both illustrate and interpret Andersen’s story.

Culled from her black-and-white marker series of drawings Love Forever, her drawings depict fanciful plants suggestive of wondrous aquatic wildlife, motifs resembling tentacles and waves, and an abundance of enigmatic, watchful eyes.

Featured image: Yayoi Kusama's Illustration for The Little Mermaid, via dazeddigital.com.

El Lissitzky - About Two Squares

Written and illustrated as a short picture book for children, El Lissitzky’s About Two Squares is also one of the most powerful expressions of revolutionary Communism and modern art.

Imagination-stretching, radically simple, and yet beautifully sophisticated, this suprematist tale tells the story of two squares that take on the mission of rebuilding the world.

First published in 1922 in post-revolutionary Russia, it redefined what an illustrated book could be. Left wonderfully open-ended, it encourages children to reinvent the world for themselves.

Featured image: El Lissitzky's About Two Squares, via wikiart.org.

Marc Chagall - A mayse mit a hon; dos tsigele

After WWI, many Jewish children were deprived of a formal education, and many devoted themselves to creating educational material for homeschooling.

Marc Chagall joined this initiative by illustrating A mayse mit a hon; dos tsigele (A Story About a Rooster and The Little Kid).

Comprised of two tales, it is the first Yiddish book, and the only children book illustrated by Chagall. In these drawings, he perfectly combines modernist elements with traditional Jewish iconography.

Featured image: Marc Chagall's Illustrations for A mayse mit a hon; dos tsigele, via artinvestment.ru. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Life Doesn't Frighten Me

Shadows on the wall

Noises down the hall

Life doesn't frighten me at all

It can’t get much better than this: Maya Angelou’s strong words in the poem titled Life Doesn’t Frighten Me accompanied by paintings of one of the most defining artists of the past century - Jean-Michel Basquiat.

This edition celebrates the 25th anniversary of the first book and is a definite must-have!

Featured images: Maya Angelou's Life Doesn't Frighten Me with illustrations by Jean-Michel Basquiat, via amazon.com.

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