Classic Illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories by Gustave Doré, Édouard Manet, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley & Arthur Rackham

What do you see when you read the work of Edgar Allan Poe? The great age of the illus­trat­ed book is far behind us. Aside from cov­er designs, most mod­ern edi­tions of Poe’s work cir­cu­late in text-only form. That’s just fine, of course. Read­ers should be trust­ed to use their imag­i­na­tions, and who can for­get indeli­ble descrip­tions like “The Tell-Tale Heart”’s “eye of a vulture—a pale, blue eye, with a film over it”? We need no pic­ture book to make that image come alive.

Yet, when we first dis­cov­er the many illus­trat­ed edi­tions of Poe pub­lished in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, we might won­der how we ever did with­out them. A copy of Tales of Mys­tery and Imag­i­na­tion illus­trat­ed by Arthur Rack­ham in 1935 (above) served as my first intro­duc­tion to this rich body of work.

Known also for his edi­tions of Peter Pan, The Wind in the Wil­lows, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Alice in Won­der­land, Rackham’s “sig­na­ture water­col­or tech­nique” was “always in high demand,” Sadie Stein writes at The Paris Review.

Some­time lat­er, I came across the 1894 Sym­bol­ist illus­tra­tions of Aubrey Beard­s­ley, and for a while, when Poe came to mind so too did Beardsley’s sen­su­al­ly creepy prints, influ­enced by Japan­ese wood­cuts and Art Nou­veau posters. His styl­ized take on Poe, notes Print mag­a­zine, offers “a very dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ic from the works of his pre­de­ces­sors.” Most promi­nent among those ear­li­er illus­tra­tors was the huge­ly pro­lif­ic Gus­tave Doré, whose clas­si­cal ren­der­ings of the Divine Com­e­dy and Don Quixote may have few equals in a field crowd­ed with illus­trat­ed edi­tions of those books.

But for me, there’s some­thing lack­ing, in the 26 steel engrav­ings Doré made for an 1884 edi­tion of Poe’s “The Raven.” They are, like all of his work, clas­si­cal­ly accom­plished works of art. But unlike Beard­s­ley, Doré seems to miss the strain of absur­dism and dark humor that runs through all of Poe’s work (or at least the way I’ve read him), though it’s true that “The Raven” relies on atmos­phere and sug­ges­tion for its effect, rather than tor­ture, mur­der, and plague. In the lat­er, 1923 edi­tion of Tales of Mys­tery and Imag­i­na­tion illus­trat­ed by Irish artist Har­ry Clarke, we find the best qual­i­ties of Beard­s­ley and Doré com­bined: fine­ly-detailed, ful­ly-real­ized scenes, suf­fused with goth­ic sen­su­al­i­ty, sym­bol­ism, grotesque weird­ness, and an almost com­i­cal­ly exag­ger­at­ed sense of dread.

Poe sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced the poet­ry of Charles Baude­laire and Stéphane Mal­lar­mé, and Clarke fore­grounds in his work many of the qual­i­ties those poets did—the tan­gling up of sex and death in images that attract and repulse at the same time. Ear­ly Impres­sion­ist mas­ter Édouard Manet also illus­trat­ed an 1875 edi­tion of “The Raven,” trans­lat­ed into French by Mal­lar­mé. Manet draws the French poet/translator as the speak­er of the poem (rec­og­niz­able by his push­b­room mus­tache).

Manet’s min­i­mal draw­ings of the poem con­trast stark­ly with Doré’s elab­o­rate engrav­ings. Just as read­ers might imag­ine Poe’s macabre sto­ries in innu­mer­able ways, so too the artists who have illus­trat­ed his work. See con­tem­po­rary illus­tra­tions for “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for exam­ple, by South African artist Pen­cil­heart Art and Brook­lyn-based illus­tra­tor Daniel Horowitz, and rec­om­mend your favorite Poe artist in the com­ments below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Har­ry Clarke’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions for Edgar Allan Poe’s Sto­ries (1923)

Aubrey Beardsley’s Macabre Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Sto­ries (1894)

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Édouard Manet Illus­trates Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, in a French Edi­tion Trans­lat­ed by Stephane Mal­lar­mé (1875)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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