Edmund Dulac: Dreamer of Dreams

7th May 2016

One of the most prized artists of the Golden Age of Book Illustration Edmund Dulac’s distinctive paintings are stunningly atmospheric. 

Born and brought up in Toulouse, France, Dulac was always an Anglophile, at art college he dressed in English style clothes, adopted English mannerisms and was nicknamed “L’Anglais.” He emigrated to England in 1905 and by the age of 29 had become a British citizen. 

Dulac’s first book commission was to provide illustrations for a set of novels by the Brontë sisters. Around the same time Hodder and Stoughton had commissioned Laurence Housman to write a version of the Arabian Nights, on seeing Dulac’s drawings for Jane Eyre they approached him with a request for fifty watercolours to accompany Housman’s Arabian Nights. The publication of Dulac and Housman’s Stories from the Arabian Nights was launched with some aplomb accompanied by a selling exhibition of the original watercolours at the Leicester Galleries, London. The book was issued in both a cloth bound edition and a magnificent vellum bound version, sold to subscribers and signed by the artist. So popular was the book that for a time Dulac was referred to as “The Arabian Nights Man.” Indeed he was to return to the Arabian Night’s tales on several occasions, with titles such as Sindbad the Sailor and Princess Badoura. 

Dulac's illustration to Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat allow him to explore Persian themes 

The Arabian Nights was to be the first in a string of elaborate gift books published to coincide with the Christmas gift market. The highest paid illustrator of the period, books bearing Dulac’s name sold tremendously well and the expensive Editions de Luxe were always over subscribed. The illustrations of his early career those such for The Arabian Nights, Sleeping Beauty, Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are distinctive for their use of a deeply rich colour palette. He particularly favoured a deep blue tone, chosen not only for its hue, but also for the play on words created by its name, bleu du lac.  His paintings from this era, his blue period, are characterized by dark, starry skies, twilight scenes and icy blue landscapes.


The Little Mermaid, from Dulac's 1911 triumph, Stories from Hans Andersen


U is for Undine, from Lyrics Pathetic and Humorous

As time went on Dulac’s fascination with the art of the Orient began to influence his work. His uncle was an antique dealer handling Oriental art and artifacts and from an early age Dulac had been entranced by the exoticism of Oriental design. Such was his attention to detail that he threw himself into his research of the subject taking an interest not only in the art and culture of the region, but he also learning to speak both Arabic and Chinese.

In an introduction to a New York exhibition of Dulac’s work it is said of the artist  “ … he would have chosen some dream city of the Orient for his birthplace, a Persian princess for his mother, and an artist of the Ming Dynasty for his father.”

The influence of the Orient is particularly evident in Princess Badoura, 1913 and Sinbad the Sailor, 1914. 

 Oriental twists to the Arabian Nights Tales in Princess Badoura

The outbreak of the First World War heralded an end to the era of opulent gift books. During this time The Daily Telegraph joined forces with Hodder and Stoughton to raise funds in support of the French Red Cross and who could be more appropriate to illustrate the volume of fairy tales than French artist Edmund Dulac. He chose some of his most popular illustrations form earlier books and added three brand new ones. Priced at just 3 shillings the book proved hugely popular, within the book reproduced below a photograph of the artist is his handwritten plea: " If any reader of my picture book would like to make a direct contribution to the French Red Cross, I should be very proud to receive it and acknowledge it. France bled of treasure and supplies is giving all she can. Can you not spare something towards this work of mercy and healing among our most gallant Allies?"

Edmund Dulac's fund raising plea from his Picture Book for the French Red Cross  

The Firebird, from Picture Book for the French Red Cross

After the war Dulac continued to work on book illustrations, though the productions became less elaborate and the style of his drawing entered a final phase employing a more subtle palette of blues and greens. In 1927 he provided paintings for a volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the drawings were the artist’s own favourites among his work and the Edition de Luxe produced in an edition of just 50 copies is now one of the most prized books of this genre. 

Dulac's Treasure Island with only 50 copies printed is a great rarity


God and Mortals in Love, 1936 has an Art Deco feel

Edmund Dulac was a man of passion who threw himself into projects wholeheartedly and thus it seems fitting that his life would come to an end, at the age of 70, after an evening of particularly strenuous flamenco dancing. He left behind him a legacy of wonderfully enchanting books.

The 1920 edition of My Days with the Fairies with its highly decorative cover

Browse more of Edmund Dulac’s books and illustrations.


Edmund Dulac Bibliography, Principle books Illustrated

1905               The Novels of the Brontë Sisters

1907               Fairies I Have Met

1907               Stories from the Arabian Nights

1908               The Tempest

1908               Lyrics Pathetic and Humorous from A-Z

1909               The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

1911               Stories from Hans Andersen

1912               The Bells and other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

1913               My Days with the Fairies

1913               Princess Badoura

1914               Sindbad the Sailor and other Stories from the Arabian Nights

1915               The Dreamer of Dreams

1916               Picture Book for the French Red Cross

1916               Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book

1918               Tanglewood Tales

1920               The Kingdom of the Pearl

1927               Treasure Island

1928               A Fairy Garland

1936               Gods and Mortals in Love

1950               The Golden Cockerel

1951               The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche

1954               The Masque of Comus

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