Lucien Pissarro

Illustration to The Sleeping Beauty

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Lucien Pissarro 1863–1944
Wood engraving on paper
Image: 152 × 229 mm
Purchased 1924

Catalogue entry

PISSARRO, Lucien 1863-1944
La Belle au bois dormant from Charles Perrault Deux Contes de ma mère l’oye 1899

Three colour wood-engraving 110 x 196 (3 15/16 x 7 3/4) on laid paper approximately 151 x 229 (5 15/16 x 8 1/4); published by the Eragny Press in an edition of 20 aside from the edition of 224 in Charles Perrault, Deux Contes de ma mère l’oye, London 1899, pp.4-5
Printed monogram ‘LP’ bottom left of left-hand image; inscribed in pencil ‘L.Pissarro, del[ineavit], sc[ulpsit] & imp[ressit]’ below left hand image and ‘7/20’ bottom left below each image
Presented by the artist 1924
Given by the artist after Tate purchased four other wood engravings January 1924
Long loan to Victoria and Albert Museum, London from 1930s – February 1977 (3856)
Lucien Pissarro, ‘Catalogue de gravures sur bois’, manuscript studiobook, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1905-29, II, nos.105-6
T[homas] Sturge Moore, A Brief Account of the Origin of the Eragny Press, London 1904, reproduced pp.35-6 (black and white version)
James Bolivar Manson, ‘Notes on Some Wood-Engravings of Lucien Pissarro’, Imprint, April 1913, vol.1, no.4, p.247, reproduced pp.242-3 (in colour but without the gold leaf)
Wood Engravings, Drawings and Books for the Eragny Press, exhibition catalogue, Leicester Galleries, London 1947, p.4
Alan Fern, ‘The Wood Engravings of Lucien Pissarro with Catalogue Raisonné’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Chicago 1960, nos.108-9
John Rewald (ed.), Camille Pissarro: Letters to his son Lucien, trans. Lionel Abel, third edition, London 1972, reproduced fig.86

Geoffrey Perkins, The Gentle Art: A Collection of Books and Wood Engravings by Lucien Pissarro, exhibition catalogue, L’Art Ancien S.A., Zurich 1974, p.29

Anne Thorold (ed.), The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, Oxford 1993, pp.597 n.3, 600-3, 687 n.5, reproduced pl.153 (with border and text)
James Hamilton, Wood Engraving and the Woodcut in Britain c.1890-1990, London 1993, reproduced pl.I (colour)
Lora Urbanelli, The Wood Engravings of Lucien Pissarro & a Bibliographical List of Eragny Books, Cambridge and Oxford 1994, reproduced on front end paper (black and white version)
Lora Urbanelli, The Book Art of Lucien Pissarro with a Bibliographical List of the Books of the Eragny Press 1894-1914, Rhode Island and London 1997, pp.90-1, reproduced pp.32-3 (black and white version)
Marcella D. Genz, A History of the Eragny Press 1894-1914, Delaware and London 2004, p.160

This wood-engraving is an illustration for Charles Perrault’s version of the traditional fairytale, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. First published in 1697, Perrault’s version of the story tells of a princess who after being cursed at her christening by a wicked fairy, pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep for one hundred years, along with everybody else in the castle. She is awakened by a king’s son whom she marries and they have two children, a son (Jour or Day) and a daughter (Aurora or Dawn). Unfortunately the princess’s ogress mother-in-law attempts to eat the princess and her two children but is foiled in the nick of time by the prince, and the ogress herself dies instead. Tate’s version of the design is from a small edition of 20 indivual prints, aside from 224 which appeared within a book.
Lucien Pissarro’s first experiments with book illustration were images accompanying stories for children, Il Etait une Bergère [Once Upon a Time There was a Shepherdess] (see P08182) and L’Histoire d’un long nez [The Story of a Long Nose]. Although both of these projects were never published, Pissarro’s interest in producing children’s books persisted thoughout his professional life. The first book published in1894 by his Eragny Press was a fairytale, The Queen of the Fishes (see Tate, P08189). During its existence, the Press also published four of Charles Perrault’s fairytales with wood-engraved illustrations and the text in French. The first of these publications was Deux Contes de ma mère l’oye - La Belle au bois dormant et Le Petit Chaperon rouge, 1899 (Two Tales of Mother Goose – The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood and Little Red Riding Hood). Pissarro designed one large single illustration for each of the two stories. These were eventually followed by two more books: Histoire de peau d’ane [The Tale of Donkey Skin], 1902; and Riquet à la houppe [Ricky of the Tuft], 1907. The objects themselves were printed in very limited editions; for instance only two hundred and twenty-four copies of Deux Contes de ma mère l'oye were made, and from these only two hundred were for sale. For a general discussion of the Eragny Press see the ‘Introduction’ and the biographies of Lucien and Esther Pissarro.
Pissarro’s illustration for the Sleeping Beauty (which is actually from two separate blocks) represents the moment of the christening of the baby princess. It is attended by seven good fairies and the uninvited wicked fairy seen on the right, whose chagrin at being overlooked leads to her bewitching the girl with the fateful curse. The fairies are seen from behind, about to enter a hall crowded with people in medieval dress. Two appear to be catching butterflies. The wood-engraving, executed by Esther Pissarro after her husband’s drawing, appeared in the book as a frontispiece with an elaborate floral border and the lines:



[A grand christening was held and the godmothers were all the fairies that could be found in the realm.

After the christening, all the company returned to the palace of the King.]

Lucien wrote to Camille that he had modelled the figures of the seven fairies after studies made of Esther’s sister, Ruth Bensusan, in her nightdress. He commented that fairies should not be depicted dressed like everyone else but his concern for rendering nature truthfully prevented him from following the tradition of representing them with the wings of butterflies.[1] Camille praised his son’s treatment in a letter of 1899:

Ta nouvelle gravure les femmes aux papillons est tout à fait à mon goût ces dames sont encore d’une race géantes mais cependant pas trop exagérées, toutefois elles sont en proportion et soigneusement dessinées, les bras les mains les costumes, les attitudes sont dans un bon sentiment de nature et pleins de charme et de style.[2]

[The new wood-engraving of the butterfly women is all to my liking, these women are still a race of giantesses but all the same not too exaggerated, however they are in proportion and carefully drawn, the arms, the hands, the clothes, the poses have a good natural feel and are full of charm and style.]

The success of the wood-engraving for La Belle au bois dormant owes much to the subtely effective colouring and the highly patterned background. In a letter explaining his ideas for the print Pissarro explained to his father that it would be ‘une planche en camaïeu et de l’or’[3] [a camaïeu proof with gold]. For them, the term ‘camaïeu’ refers, as Thorold has explained, to a chiaroscuro effect, achieved by using only two or three colours of similar shade or tone, sometimes emphasised by a darker outline.[4] Pissarro experimented with different colour schemes including two tones of blue on both cream and grey paper with added touches of white bodycolour and gold paint,[5] before settling for grey/green and black on white paper with an elaborate printed gold pattern in the background. Anne Thorold has noted that this complicated use of gold which creates a repeated trellis pattern as a backdrop to the figures of the fairies, required the use of seven woodblocks, in addition to two other line woodblocks, two zinc and two copper plates for the rest of the image.[6] For a discussion of the technical difficulties associated with printing with gold see the text for P07098.

The tale of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was not only popular in France. Aside from Perrault the story had been re-written many times, including the more familiar, shortened version told by the Brothers Grimm. It was first translated into English in 1729 by Robert Samber and was retold many times, including by Tennyson in his poem Day Dream in 1842. It also became a favourite theme for British artists, the most famous example probably being the Briar Rose series (Buscot Park, Berkshire) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98).
Nicola Moorby
December 2002

[1] Letter from Lucien to Camille, [April] 1899, Anne Thorold (ed.) 1993, The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, Oxford 1993, p.602.

[2] Letter from Camille to Lucien 22 March 1899, reproduced in ibid., p.601.

[3] Letter from Lucien to Camille [March] 1899, ibid., p.600.
[4] Ibid., p.619 note 2.
[5] Early proofs of La belle au bois dormant, 1999.329 and 1999.330, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
[6] Thorold (ed.) 1993, p.603 note 3.

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