Arthur RACKHAM (Lewisham 1867 - Limpsfield 1939)
Danaë and the Infant Perseus: An Illustration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder-Book for Girls & Boys
Pen and black ink and black wash, with touches of watercolour, on paper laid down on card.
Signed Arthur Rackham at the lower left.
258 x 227 mm. (10 1/8 x 9 in.)
The present sheet was drawn for an illustrated edition of the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1922 with sixteen illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The book, a retelling of Greek myths for children, had first appeared in print in 1851.
In Greek mythology, Danaë was the daughter of Acrisius, the King of Argos. Told by an oracle that his daughter would one day give birth to a son who would someday kill him, Acrisius locked his childless only daughter in a tower, in an attempt to foil the prophecy. Nevertheless, the god Zeus contrived to visit Danaë in her cell in the form of a shower of gold, resulting in her giving birth to a boy, Perseus. Acrisius placed his daughter and tiny grandson into a wooden box and threw it into the sea, trusting that they would be unable to survive the elements. As Hawthorne tells the story: ‘Perseus was the son of Danaë, who was the daughter of a king. And when Perseus was a very little boy, some wicked people put his mother and himself into a chest, and set them afloat upon the sea. The wind blew freshly, and drove the chest away from the shore, and the uneasy billows tossed it up and down; while Danaë clasped her child closely to her bosom, and dreaded that some big wave would dash its foamy crest over them both.’ However, the box came ashore on the island of Seriphos, and mother and son were rescued. Many years later, the oracle was proved correct when Acrisius was watching a sports competition, in which, unbeknownst to him, Perseus was competing. Perseus, who in turn did not know that his grandfather was in the audience, accidentally killed the old man with an errant discus throw.
One writer on Rackham has noted that ‘There is a gentle, almost imperceptible, softening of style in Rackham’s working during the early twenties. Rackham is mellowing, his love for the fantastic giving place to a love for what we so readily call ‘the real’. We see this…especially in Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book…the softening is noticeable in the manner in which he paints his children and women…The moment one opens Hawthorne’s Wonder Bookone becomes aware of the rounding and softening of form in Rackham’s work.’ The artist seems to have been especially pleased with his work for Hawthorne’s A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. As Rodney Engen has noted, ‘Rackham much admired this particular book; in later years on a working visit to the Unites States he was able to re-negotiate the book’s continued publication there with the American publisher George Doran.’
Another original ink and watercolour drawing by Rackham for the 1922 edition of the Wonder-Book, used for the endpapers of the book, is today in the British Museum. Other finished drawings for illustrations in the Wonder-Book, all in pen and ink and watercolour, are in the collections of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in New York and the Free Library of Philadelphia, as well as in several private collections.
The present sheet is, in fact, the second finished version of this subject by Rackham, following a different composition drawn in 1903 and published ten years later in Arthur Rackham’s Book of Pictures, a compendium of mostly unpublished drawings. In the earlier drawing, in which the waves are much less prominent, the child Perseus is nestled into his mother’s chest, and his face is not seen. The 1903 drawing was in turn derived from a black and white line drawing by Rackham for Bartold Georg Nuebuhr’s book The Greek Heroes, published in 1903.
The provenance of this drawing can be traced back to Scott & Fowles of 667 Fifth Avenue, New York, who were Arthur Rackham's American gallery representatives throughout the 1920s. The gallery mounted four exhibitions of Rackham’s drawings between 1919 and 1927.
Scott & Fowles, New York
Art market, London
Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Wonder-Book for Girls & Boys, London, 1922; Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Wonder Book, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham, Alcester, 2013, reproduced on the cover.