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Vintage French Illustrators, part 1

Updated on December 14, 2015

Famous Illustrators from France

Today we can't imagine literature for children without illustrations, but everything had to start somewhere. If we can say France is a homeland of the fairy tale as a literary genre, it is only fair to introduce some of the top French illustrators from the time of the birth of modern picture books in second half of 19th century.

All presented artists started their career as academic painters and most of them thought of illustration only as a part time job, as a sort of promotion of their skills helping them to get 'real' jobs (usually with much heftier commissions) easier.

It were exactly the same skills which helped to put the children picture books to the next field of high quality which we still expect from good children book right here and right now. Dealing with Frenchmen we should expect at least three major works from the world literature being present at most, if not all portfolios of most popular artists from France.

(All used images are in public domain)

Which major works do you expect in standard repertoire of these artists from France?

There should be:

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Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902)


He lost his mother at the tender age of two and was raised by his aunt. Benjamin Constant studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Paris where he later became a teacher. One of his biggest influences was famous Eugene Delacroix and as many other French painters he traveled to North Africa (in his case this was Morocco) what marked the rest of his creative life.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant became known portraitist and one of the world most famous oriental painters in the second half of 19th century. In last years of his life he became a teacher at Julian Academy where he succeeded another famous French painter Gustave Boulanger.

French illustrators influenced their colleagues all over Europe

Many genres were born in 19th century...

It is hard to say if modern picture book was born in Germany (with brothers Grimm and other collectors and many famous illustrators), France (discussed on this page) or England (where the main technology progress in mass printing occurred), but it is pretty clear French illustrators of second half of 19th century were extremely active part of the process. J.J. Grandville was one of the most influential artists from this time.

Fantastic Illustrations of Grandville: 266 Illustrations from Un Autre Monde and Les Animax
Fantastic Illustrations of Grandville: 266 Illustrations from Un Autre Monde and Les Animax

Did you know this illustrator inspired artists, who were born many decades after his work was first published. Yes, Grandville is certainly the illustrator who made an impact on all kinds of fantasy genres!

To find out more about him just read on...


J. J. Grandville (1803-1843)

His breakthrough was work titled Metamorphoses of the day published in 1829, an illustrated human comedy with 70 full page (plus cover + about 70 vignettes) illustrations of people with animal heads. Human expressions on these faces were so convincing, they established Grandville's name in the world of caricature. From the date of publishing every humorous text in hands of French publishers Grandville was always considered as the candidate to illustrate it.

Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard, what was his real name, became one of the top political caricaturists but after return of a censorship (which, of course, was not in his favor) he turned almost exclusively to books illustration. His style got him commissions for classic works as Gulliver's Travels, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and - what else - many fables, including La Fontaine's and Florian. These works got him world wide fame.

Looking at the historical importance of his work we must mention at least two more books: The Flowers Personified and The Other World which influenced many artists from Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel to rock bands The Queen and Alice in Chains. J. J. Grandville's work inspired artist born way after his early death and today he is considered as sort of grandfather of Surrealism and Dadaism.

Albert Robida (1848-1926)


Today known mostly as a caricaturist Robida was at first enrolled in a school to become a lawyer. He started drawing caricatures out of boredom and very soon began to contribute his illustrations to various magazines until (together with George Decau) established his own one called La Caricature, where many talented artists, including Louis Morin, Job and above already mentioned Grandville honed their skills.

Less known fact (at least to wider audience) is Robida's career as a science fiction writer. His work was lately rediscovered and reprinted. His visionary is astonishing. He correctly predicted many technological and social changes many decades in advance, from women emancipation and mass destruction weapons to pollution and smart phones.

Like most of the illustrators from France Robida illustrated some of the major works, including fairy tales from 1001 Arabian Nights as we can see on the illustration from Aladdin and magic lamp above.

Enter the sci fi world of A. Robida!


Gustave Dore (1832-1888)

We really can't make a list of famous French illustrators without Gustave Dore, sort of child prodigy without formal training but with an incredible talent which was already visible in his school years. He started career as a caricaturist and became an illustrator with Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. His speed of creating was legendary and in combination of skill (engraving was actually the field where Dore most excelled) he soon established a position of the illustrator in top demand.

He illustrated works by Dante Alighieri, Honore de Balzac, Jean de La Fontaine, Victor Hugo, John Milton, Charles Perrault, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson and other giants of classic literature, but his most know work is without doubt Dore's Bible. With more than one thousand (!) reprints all over the world this is without doubt the most successful illustrator ever.

Although it is hard to apply universal criteria, thanks to his skills and productivity (one published book with his works in every eight days on average through entire career which lasted 40 years!) Gustave Dore was probably the most successful illustrator of all times!

Did you know?

At the age of 16 Gustave Dore was already best paid illustrator in France!


Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (1851-1913)

Boutet de Monvel was painter and illustrator with incredible sense for children's fantasy world, who is sometimes compared to Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway from Great Britain.

He was a painter and started illustrating only when he became a father and was forced to find more predictable sources of income. His most famous works for children are drawings for Saint Nicolas: A comic book for boys and girls, Songs of France for French children, Old songs and dances for young children and Fables by de La Fontaine.

Despite his great success as illustrator, Maurice Boutet de Monvel never stopped thinking about himself as a history painter, so we shall not be surprised his masterpiece was somewhere between both of his professions. He wrote and illustrated Joan d'Arc (for kids) which brought him international fame.

More then hundred years after his death many of his works are still in print today.

Which of presented illustrators is your favorite?

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      4 years ago from Ljubljana

      France is officially the home of fairy tale as literary genre, so I am a bit biased too! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Craan profile image

      Sheila Craan 

      4 years ago from Florida

      How lovely, TolovajWordsmith! I'm French so I am biased, and happy to learn how illustrations became a traditional part of our best loved children's books. Thanks for sharing!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      4 years ago from Ljubljana

      Thanks for stopping by, DrBillSmithWriter:)

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      What fun! Thanks for sharing!! ;-)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Great!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image


      5 years ago

      Just checking this out again.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: :)

    • WriterJanis2 profile image


      5 years ago

      I forgot to like this lens, so I came back. great job.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: He was his own class, wasn't he? Thanks!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image


      5 years ago

      From the pictures you have here, I would pick Dore. It's so wonderful to see something new from you again.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile imageAUTHOR

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Joebeducci: I hope they are more familiar to you now:)

    • Joebeducci profile image


      5 years ago

      So hard to chose, I didn't know them well. Great read with amazing illustrations! Greets, Joebeducci


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