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.
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.
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.
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.