Wednesday, 13 January 2016

'Don Quixote' in Pictures

Beggarstaff Brothers (William Nicholson & James Pryde), Don Quixote, 1895
I love 'Don Quixote', though I've only read the book in translation (Edith Grossman's version is my current favourite). What makes it so extraordinary is, to my mind, the fact that we as readers admire the strange old would-be knight despite knowing that he is delusional. We inhabit his fantasies even as we simultaneously share his fellow characters' amusement.

This unlikely co-existence of different perspectives makes the illustrator's job particularly tricky. The book may abound in visually striking incidents - jousting at windmills being perhaps the most famous - but how do you communicate in a picture the layer of reading experience in which the old man's warped vision of reality is noble and true? In fact many artists have responded to the text by presenting Don Quixote as the knight he imagines himself to be; I had a picture of the Beggarstaffs poster when I was young and it gave me the (offputting) impression that this business of knights and windmills was rather solemn.

On the other hand, some of the 17th/18th century illustrations are too obviously comic. The old man's journey is one that takes him through physical hardship, many beatings, near starvation and humiliation. His refusal to give up his noble quest is noble, even though his actions are ridiculous.

Don Quixote reading, Adolf Schwedt, C19

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote Reading, 1868

Svetlin Vassilev, Don Quixote Reading, 2003

Honore Daumier, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 1870, Courtauld

Angelo Agostini, Don Quixote (magazine cover), 1880s

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955

Edward Hopper, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 1899

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 1868

Svetlin Vassilev, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 2003

Charles-Antoine Coypel, Don Quixote Fighting the Wineskins, early C18

Roc Riera Rojas, Don Quixote Jousting Windmills, 1968

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote Jousting Windmills, 1868

Print after Coypel, Don Quixote at the Enchanted Inn, early C18

Roc Riera Rojas, Sancho Panza tossed in a blanket, 1968

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote charging sheep, 1868

In the end I think Gustave Dore remains the one to beat: his vision of 'Don Quixote' is deranged, serious, noble and absurd, all at the same time. I imagine his illustrations will be included in the British Library's exhibition devoted to the subject, which is scheduled to open soon.

Having said that, I really like the work of Svetlin Vassilev, who is Bulgarian and lives in Greece. More about him here


  1. Posted this on my FB page; a superbe blog!

  2. Thanks Camille - glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Excellent blog post. The problem for the illustrator is that Quixote is simultaneously a ridiculous old Pantaloon, a noble El Cid, a visionary artist, and (this one sneaks up on the reader) a Catholic saint. No picture could combine all of these parts, though perhaps the faceless Daumier comes closest. Interesting that Quixote’s shield in the Daumier resembles an artist’s palette.