Cinderella – Aschenputtel – Popelka

While wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago, I happened upon a beautiful new acquisition in one hallway and spent a happy twenty minutes or so staring at it before I started taking photos to let me enjoy more details later. I’d like to share it with you, along with some of the source material.

Eugen Napoleon Neureuther's Cinderella, 1848

Retold fairy tales are one of my favorite genres of literature – I enjoy seeing the familiar core storylines and basic archetypes reinvented through new author’s imaginations, interpreting motivations and backstories that are usually left out of the original tales.

While new versions often introduce narrative elements that suit our modern tastes, they usually also leave out details that are disturbing to us. If you’ve only met Cinderella through Disney and other modern incarnations, you’ll be surprised to see the very different ending of the story below.

The original “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” where we get our Cinderella, were an odd mix of strangeness, horror and wonder – while the Grimm brothers titled their book “Kinder- und Hausmärchen”  (Children’s and Household Tales) – they did not write them, but collected the folktales in their work as academic linguists.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien noted “children are now too often spared [this] in mollified version of Grimm. They should not be spared it – unless they are spared the whole story until their digestions are stronger” (The Tolkien Reader, 31).

The artist who created this etching, Eugen Napoleon Neureuther, clearly had no problem with some of these  “less appetizing” elements – but he didn’t focus on the gore so much as the mirrored virtuous and villainous acts of the heroine and her persecutors.

Poster Title
Popelka is the Czech name for Cinderella, Aschenputtel the original German name

Reading the original tale again (which I’ve pasted below from an early English version I found in Google Books) I was impressed by how this artist reflected the repetitive narrative techniques as he built a beautifully symmetrical image with individual scenes balanced in a intricate architectural structure overlaid with interwoven natural elements. 

THERE was once a rich man whose wife lay sick and when she felt her end drawing near she called to her only daughter to come near her bed and said "Dear child be pious and good and God will always take care of you and I will look down upon you from heaven and will be with you ."

you And then she closed her eyes and expired The maiden went every day to her mother's grave and wept and was always pious and good When the winter came the snow covered the grave with a white covering and when the sun came in the early spring and melted it away the man took to himself another wife

her mother's death and grave are at the center bottom of the story, supporting later scenes
her mother’s death and grave are at the center bottom of the story, supporting later scenes

The new wife brought two daughters home with her and they were beautiful and fair in appearance but at heart were black and ugly And then began very evil times for the poor step daughter Is the stupid creature to sit in the same room with us P said they those who eat food must earn it Out upon her for a kitchen maid They took away her pretty dresses and put on her an old gray kirtle and gave her wooden shoes to wear Just look now at the proud princess how she is decked out cried they laughing and then they sent her into the kitchen There she was obliged to do heavy work from morning to night get up early in the morning draw water

Evil Stepsisters in action - background scenes, not directly drawn from the text
Evil Stepsisters in action – background scenes, not directly drawn from the text

make the fires cook and wash Besides that the sisters did their utmost to torment her mocking her and strewing peas and lentils among the ashes and setting her to pick them up In the evenings when she was quite tired out with her hard day's work she had no bed to lie on but was obliged to rest on the hearth among the cinders And as she always looked dusty and dirty they named her Aschenputtel It happened one day that the father went to the fair and he asked his two step daughters what he should bring back for them Fine clothes said one Pearls and jewels said the other

 But what will you have Aschenputtel P said he The first twig father that strikes against your hat on the way home that is what I should like you to bring me So he bought for the two step daughters fine clothes pearls and jewels and on his way back as he rode through a green lane a hazel twig struck against his hat and he broke it off and carried it home with him And when he reached home he gave to the step daughters what they had wished for and to Aschenputtel he gave the hazel twig She thanked him and went to her mother's grave and planted this twig there weeping so bitterly that the tears fell upon it and watered it and it flourished and became a fine tree Aschenputtel went to see it three times a day and wept and prayed and each time a white bird rose up from the tree and if she uttered any wish the bird brought her whatever she had wished for

Now it came to pass that the king ordained a festival that should last for three days and to which all the beautiful young women of that country were bidden so that the king's son might choose a bride from among them When the two stepdaughters heard that they too were hidden to appear they felt very pleased and they called Aschenputtel and said Comb our hair brush our shoes and make our buckles fast we are going to the wedding feast at the king's castle Aschenputtel when she heard this could not help crying for she too would have liked to go to the dance and she begged her step mother to allow her What you Aschenputtel said she in all your dust
and dirt you want to go to the festival you that have no dress and no shoes I you want to dance
But as she persisted in asking at last the step mother said I have strewed a dish full of lentils in the ashes and if you can pick them all up again in two hours you may go with us Then the maiden went to the back door that led into the garden and called out O gentle doves O turtle doves And all the birds that be The lentils that in ashes lie Come and pick up for me l The good must be put in the dish The bad you may eat if you wis Then there came to the kitchen window two white doves and after them some turtle doves and at last a crowd of all the birds under heaven chirping and fluttering and they alighted among the ashes and the doves nodded with their heads and began to pick peck pick peck and then all the others began to pick peck pick peck and put all the good grains into the dish Before an hour was over all was done and they flew away Then the maiden brought the dish to her step mother feeling joyful and thinking that now she should go to the feast but the step mother said No Aschenputtel you have no proper clothes and you do not know how to dance and you would he laughed at

Birds pecking through the dish

you laughed And when Aschenputtel cried for disappointment she added If you can pick two dishes full of lentils out of the ashes nice and clean you shall go with us thinking to herself for that is not possible When she had strewed two dishes full of lentils among the ashes the maiden went through the backdoor into the garden and cried O gentle doves O turtle doves And all the birds that be The lentils that in ashes lie Come and pick up for me The good must be put in the dish The bad you may eat if you wish
So there came to the kitchen window two white doves and then some turtle doves and at last a crowd of all the other birds under heaven chirping and fluttering and they alighted among the ashes and the doves nodded with their heads and began to pick peck pick peck and then all the others began to pick peck pick peck and put all the good grains into the dish And before half an hour was over it was all done and they flew away Then the maiden took the dishes to the step mother feeling joyful and thinking that now she should go with them to the feast but she said All this is of no good to you you cannot come with us for you have no proper clothes and cannot dance you would put us to shame Then she turned her back on poor Aschenputtel and made haste to set out with her two proud daughters

The birds busy themselves while she watches

proud daughters And as there was no one left in the house Aschenputtel went to her mother's grave under the hazel bush and cried Little tree little tree shake over me That silver and gold may come down and cover me Then the bird threw down a dress of gold and silver and a pair of slippers embroidered with silk and silver And in all haste she put on the dress and went to the festival But her step mother and sisters did not know her and thought she must be a foreign princess she looked so beautiful in her golden dress Of Aschenputtel they never thought at all and supposed that she was sitting at home and picking the lentils out of the ashes The King's son came to meet her and took her by the hand and danced with her and he refused to stand up with any one else so that he might not be obliged to let go her hand and when any one came to claim it he answered She is my partner

the glamorous ball, so bright even the protagonists are cast into its shadow
the glamorous ball, so bright even the protagonists are cast into its shadow

my partner And when the evening came she wanted to go home but the prince said he would go with her to take care of her for he wanted to see where the beautiful maiden lived But she escaped him and jumped up into the pigeon house Then the prince waited until the father came and told him the strange maiden had jumped into the pigeon house The father thought to himself It cannot surely be Aschenputtel and called for axes and hatchets and had the pigeon house cut down but there
was no one in it And when they entered the house there sat Aschenputtel in her dirty clothes among the cinders and a little oil lamp burnt dimly in the chimney for Aschenputtel had been very quick and had jumped out of the pigeon house again and had run to the hazel bush and there she had taken off her beautiful dress and had laid it on the grave and the bird had carried it away again and then she had put on her little gray kirtle again and had sat down in the kitchen among the cinders

cutting down the pigeon house while she watches from above
cutting down the pigeon house while she watches from above

The next day when the festival began anew and the parents and step sisters had gone to it Aschenputtel went to the hazel bush and cried Little tree little tree shake over me That silver and gold may come down and cover me Then the bird cast down a still more splendid dress than on the day before And when she appeared in it among the guests every one was astonished at her beauty The prince had been waiting until she came and he took her hand and danced with her alone And when any one else came to invite her he said She is my partner

confident prince, uncertain heroine cast into shadow
confident prince, uncertain heroine cast into shadow

my partner And when the evening came she wanted to go home and the prince followed her for he wanted to see to what house she belonged but she broke away from him and ran into the garden at the back of the house There stood a fine large tree bearing splendid pears she leapt as lightly as a squirrel among the branches and the prince did not know what had become of her So he waited until the father came and then he told him that the strange maiden had rushed from him and that he thought she had gone up into the pear tree The father thought to himself It cannot surely be Aschenputtel and called for an axe and felled the tree but there was no one in it And when they went into the kitchen there sat Aschenputtel among the cinders as usual for she had got down the other side of the tree and had taken back her beautiful clothes to the bird on the hazel bush and had put on her old gray kirtle again

seeking her with a shoe while she hides in her tree
seeking her with a shoe while she hides in her tree

On the third day, when the parents and the step children had set off, Aschenputtel went again to her mother's grave, and said to the tree
Little tree little tree shake over me That silver and gold may come down and cover me Then the bird cast down a dress the like of which had never been seen for splendour and brilliancy and slippers that were of gold And when she appeared in this dress at the feast nobody knew what to say for wonderment The prince danced with her alone and if any one else asked her he answered She is my partner
my partner And when it was evening Aschenputtel wanted to go home and the prince was about to go with her when she ran past him so quickly that he could not follow her But he had laid a plan and had caused all the steps to be spread with pitch so that as she rushed down them the left shoe of the maiden remained sticking in it The prince picked it up and saw that it was of gold and very small and slender The next morning he went to the father and told him that none should be his bride save the one whose foot the golden shoe should fit

golden Then the two sisters were very glad because they had pretty feet The eldest went to her room to try on the shoe and her mother stood by But she could not get her great toe into it for the shoe was too small then her mother handed her a knife and said Cut the toe off for when you are queen you will never have to go on foot So the girl cut her toe off squeezed her foot into the shoe concealed the pain and went down to the prince Then he took her with him on his horse as his bride and rode off They had to pass by the grave and there sat the two pigeons on the hazel bush and cried There they go there they go There is blood on her shoe The shoe is too small Not the right bride at all

the stepsisters form the central motif, this one's stare is especially arresting
the stepsisters form the central motif, this one’s stare is especially arresting

Then the prince looked at her shoe and saw the blood flowing And he turned his horse round and took the false bride home again saying she was not the right one and that the other sister must try on the shoe So she went into her room to do so and got her toes comfortably in but her heel was too large Then her mother handed her the knife saying Cut a piece off your heel ; when you are queen you will never have to go on foot." So the girl cut a piece of her heel and thrust her foot into the shoe concealed the pain and went down to the prince who took his bride before him on his horse and rode off When they passed by the hazel bush the two pigeons sat there and cried There they go there they go There is blood on her shoe The shoe is too small Not the right bride at all l Then the prince looked at her foot and saw how the blood was flowing from the shoe and staining the white stocking And he turned his horse round and brought the false bride home again This is not the right one said he have you no other daughter

the sisters' detailed drapery (or lack thereof) helps focus attention on them too.
the sisters’ detailed drapery (or lack thereof) helps focus attention on them too.

"No," said the man, "only my dead wife left behind her a little stunted Aschenputtel; it is impossible that she can be the bride." But the King's son ordered her to be sent for but the mother said Oh no she is much too dirty I could not let her be seen But he would have her fetched and so Aschenputtel had to appear First she washed her face and hands quite clean and went in and curtseyed to the prince who held out to her the golden shoe Then she sat down on a stool drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe and slipped it into the golden one which fitted it perfectly And when she stood up and the prince looked in her face he knew again the beautiful maiden that had danced with him and he cried This is the right bride l

The step mother and the two sisters were thunderstruck and grew pale with anger but he put Aschenputtel before him on his horse and rode off And as they passed the hazel bush the two white pigeons cried There they go there they go No blood on her shoe
The shoes not too small a The right bride is she after all And when they had thus cried they came flying after and perched on Aschenputtel's shoulders one on the right the other on the left and so remained

the wedding is relegated to a soft background, while the stepsisters' violent fate is brought forward in more detail.
the wedding is relegated to a soft background,
while the stepsisters’ violent fate is brought forward in more detail.

And when her wedding with the prince was appointed to be held the false sisters came hoping to curry favour and to take part in the festivities So as the bridal procession went to the church the eldest walked on the right side and the younger on the left and the pigeons picked out an eye of each of them And as they returned the elder was on the left side and the younger on the right and the pigeons picked out the other eye of each of them And so they were condemned to go blind for the rest of their days because of their wickedness and falsehood

Comparing the text and the illustrations, the artist seemed far more intrigued by the violent fates of the stepsisters than the protagonist’s trials and tribulations. In each case where we can see her clearly, she is passive, looking to her birds or tree or prince to solve her issues.

The stepsister’s interaction with the birds is violent but purposeful, and even the surrounding flowers are fixated on the action.  Still, despite this focus on the bloody elements in the story,  the image is also full of fanciful images unrelated to the central plot, woven into the stately architecture and exuberant foilage.

The graceful lines of the vines are echoed in the sly gargoyles, the softness of the fading forest views bringing the towers with their happy characters into the foreground. The lower center section is full of detailed flowers and leaves, but the dandelions charmed me most.

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