Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Artist feature: Jessie Wilcox Smith

I've featured the fairy tale artwork of a few artists before, which I chose because they are among my favorite fairy tale illustrators: Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, and Harry Clarke. This feature is a little unusual in that I have selected Jessie Wilcox Smith, who is one of my least favorite fairy tale authors.

Not to be excessively negative or judgemental, and I'll be the first to admit I couldn't illustrate a fairy tale well to save my life. Her illustrations are certainly very well done, but I dislike how they are aimed for such a young audience, in a way that dumbs down the stories, in my opinion. Most fairy tale heroes and heroines are children, but Smith's are barely out of infancy:

Hansel and Gretel
But what really bothers me is how she turns any animals, which would have had associations of danger and fear to the earlier tellers of fairy tales, and turns them (literally) into stuffed animals, such as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Beauty and the Beast, below (yes, the stuffed monkey is the Beast)

 As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with creating versions of fairy tales that are aimed for a specific audience, even young children. What gets fairy tale lovers extra sensitive is the prevailing notion that fairy tales are insipid, insignificant stories with idealistic plots and meant only for young children. In all fairness, Smith was illustrating these stories at a time when the prevalent idea was that fairy tales were primarily suited for children's literature (early 20th century). And I'm not sure, from a brief internet search, which is all I have time for presently, how much control she had over the content of the versions of fairy tales she illustrated (again, those of you who do, feel free to let me know in the comments!) And I do like some of her pictures, like these for Cinderella and Goose Girl:

But, those of you who have seen The Shining, look at this illustration of Snow White and Rose Red and tell me this isn't what pops into your head: "Come play with us, Danny...for ever, and ever..."


  1. It is true that in this era these children seem way to young to be the main characters in our much loved fairy tales. But in retrospect, children grew up faster long ago, and were often in adult roles quite young. It was not uncommon to be betrothed at twelve, to be married at 13. Most of these stories are thousands of years old and have many layers of cultural adaptation on top of them; for example Snow White and Rose Red (illustrated above) is at least ten thousand years old, as are others with references to spinning and weaving. (see article at;postID=7373304099379026736. As for me, I agree, seeing a five year old in these stories is too young for today's kids.

  2. I tried going to the article, it says I don't have access to view the page, is there another link?