The illustration of the children's book: around the Tales of Perrault

The illustration of the children's book: around the Tales of Perrault

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  • Le petit Poucet [Illustration from Perrault's Tales].

    DORE Gustave (1832 - 1883)

  • The Puss in Boots [Illustration from Perrault's Tales].

    DORE Gustave (1832 - 1883)

Le petit Poucet [Illustration from Perrault's Tales].

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

The Puss in Boots [Illustration from Perrault's Tales].

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Publication date: July 2007

Historical context

Innovations in the tradition of illustrated tales

Originally, that is to say from the 17th century, the vignettes only had a frontispiece function introducing each tale. From there come the Prince at the bedside of the dozing Sleeping Beauty, Little Thumb pulling the Ogre's boots, or the devouring of Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother by the wolf.
With the romantic illustrated editions of Perrault's tales, the single emblematic image gives way to the many vignettes engraved on wood and inserted into the text, thereby offering a visual reading of the tale. These images operate on the register of the essential, bringing out the highlights of the text.
This progression of the image is, of course, made possible by a number of technical innovations, foremost among which is lithography. This process, developed by Senefelder around 1796, was mastered and commonly used from the 1830s.

Image Analysis

The Tales of Perrault as seen by Gustave Doré

The most famous edition of Tales de Perrault is undoubtedly the one published in 1862 by Hetzel, illustrated by Gustave Doré. The book comes in the form of an unusually large volume (folio), and does not include thumbnails but 40 large full-page compositions, offering a fresh take on tales and thus considerably enriching the iconography of certain texts. Tom Thumb, relatively short, contains 11 plates on its own.
Plates depicting Petit Poucet sowing pebbles and Puss in Boots calling for help reveal some of Doré's style. Both bear witness to the romantic spirit of the illustrations. This can be read in the importance given to the landscape and the decor, in the theatrical and emphatic effects of the Puss in Boots, or in the dramatic use of light, which highlights the heroes. The first image also shows an original and dynamic high angle framing which, associated with the penetration of the characters in the depth and the winding path, expresses the loss of landmarks and the absorption of the children in the dense and disturbing universe of the forest.


Functions of the illustration

The monumental format of the work illustrated by Doré, its large amount of illustrations, the detailed settings and atmospheres of the images, all combine to give Perrault's texts an equal status with the greatest literary works (Dante, Cervantes etc.). This legitimization of fairy tales can be understood in a context where scientific type movements are developing, launched in the wake of the Grimm brothers (search for variants, filiations). The enthusiasm is such that we then find many adaptations of the tales in the theater, the circus, the opera or in advertising.
The illustration has an ornamental function, giving the books a luxurious character, but it also offers an interpretation of the text. The tale is presented as a concise tale, in an allusive style, without detail in the descriptions. The economy in the writing, the arid sequence of actions and the dryness of the descriptions, allow the image to go beyond paraphrasing and enrich the text with more or less significant details. Doré does not take the party to represent the marvelous dimension of the tale and its unreal beings. Through the framing, the artist solicits the emotions of the viewer and invites him to project himself into the images. He gives his illustrations a possible character and, more in the spirit of the Brothers Grimm than of Perrault, he emphasizes the strangeness, the drama and the anguish of situations.

  • childhood
  • literature
  • romanticism
  • tale (story)
  • Perrault (Charles)


Once upon a time ... Fairy talesCatalog of the exhibition which took place from March 20 to June 17, 2001 at the Bnf, Seuil / Bnf, 2001. Michel MELOTIllustration, history of an artGeneva, Skira, 1984.

To cite this article

Cécile PICHON-BONIN, "The illustration of the children's book: around the Tales of Perrault"

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