Illustrating the Dolphin Editions

History and Imagination

Sappho and Alcaeus, by Maud- Taber-Thomas.
“How close I came to facing the crepuscular
Proserpine’s realm, Aeacus’ judgements, glades
where souls of all the righteous are,
and the plaintive Aeolian serenades
of Sappho among the poplars, her girls around her,
and you, Alcaeus, who more resoundingly
apply your golden pick, propounded
of warfare and exile and trials at sea.”
(Horace, 2.13, Childers translation)

The moment I read the above passage from Chris Childers’s translation of Horace’s poems, I knew what I would draw. My imagination was seized by the vivid image of Sappho and Alcaeus in the underworld, the melancholy strains of their music twining through a grove of trees and holding the attending shades spellbound. As an illustrator, I look for moments when the text engages the senses and creates a scene charged with atmosphere and emotion, and a passage like this one is a gift.

When called upon to illustrate the Paideia Institute’s Dolphin Editions, comprising selections from The Iliad, The Aeneid, the poetry of Horace and Catullus, and Julius Caesar’s Gallic War, I was struck by how the texts varied in their visual qualities. While certain authors seemed almost to paint the scenes on the page, conjuring a sense of atmosphere by detailing the characters’ appearances, the clothing, the setting, the time of day, and even the weather, others were much more focused on action, dialogues, and debates between characters.

I have noticed this variation in books from the many time periods that have inspired my work. For example, Jane Austen rarely gives us any visual descriptions — the thoughts and speech of the characters are of primary importance, and it is exceedingly rare even to get an indication of what a character looks like. Readers are free to picture the scenes however they want. Charlotte Bronte, on the other hand, always tells us what her characters look like and relishes creating highly detailed, atmospheric descriptions of the settings. This creates a much more evocative mental image of the time period, and, for an artist, it’s as though the author has already created a painting on the page. Each approach offers a different kind of freedom and invitation to the illustrator.

Of the Classical texts I was illustrating, The Iliad was very much of the Jane Austen type. Most of the text consists of either action or dialogue that leave open lots of questions about the visual elements: is the scene indoors or outdoors, is it day or night, are the characters dressed for battle or wearing more casual clothes? So, I had to combine my understanding of the time period with imagination to create an atmosphere and visual look for each scene. This lack of direction permitted me the freedom to show some of the scenes in unconventional ways: for instance, when Agamemnon and Achilles are arguing over Briseis, I showed the scene from the perspective of Briseis and Chriseis, who, I imagined, might have been watching the scene together as their fates were being decided.

The Aeneid was a pleasure for me to discover during this project, because Virgil writes in a very painterly way. We are given vivid, colorful, and elaborate descriptions of characters and settings, and a strong sense of atmosphere. The instant I read the following scene, I felt that my drawing had already composed itself in my head:

“There Aeolus the king in his huge cavern
Uses his power with fetters and chains to hold
The struggling winds and howling tempests in.
The mountain moaned with the noise of their prisoned outrage.
They blustered against the bonds he bound them with.”
(David Ferry translation)

In my drawing I strove to capture the dim light of the cave with the powerful figures of Aeolus and Hera, who had come to plead with him, surrounded by the swirling winds seeking to free themselves from their prison.

The Cave of Aeolus, by Maud Taber-Thomas.

The poems of Catullus and especially Horace were also very vivid in their visual descriptions. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War, on the other hand, was the least visual and poetic of all the texts, since it primarily narrates the strategy of a military campaign in a very literal way. However, this freed me to stage the action in my own creative way. I researched Roman military camps, armor, and weapons, as well as Celtic culture, and I had great fun figuring out how to compose and embellish the costumes, settings, and characters to add visual drama to the events that unfolded on the page.

Imagine stopping by a friend’s house for what you think will be a relaxed afternoon and instead being draped in Ancient Greek attire and asked to pose as the poet Horace, King Pirithous chained in the underworld, and a centaur. Many of my friends, family members, and neighbors were subjected to just that treatment as I sought models for my illustrations. My preference is always to work from observation rather than from imagination in drawing figures and scenes. Because of the pandemic, this was more challenging than usual, but I was delightfully surprised by the number of people who were willing to aid me in my artistic process.

This is not the first step in the process, however. For each illustration I create, I start with a close reading of the text to formulate an image of the scene in my mind. With the help of research on the setting, costumes, and characters, I then create pencil sketches for the composition of the scene. This step involves a lot of puzzling as I experiment with how the characters will be posed, how they will fit into the setting, and how all of it will be composed on the page. I then find people who suit my image of the characters and ask them to model. We read the scene together and experiment with different poses, lighting, props, and costumes (luckily, it turns out that everyone looks great in a chiton!). Back in my studio, I draw the figures from the photo references using charcoal. I often draw the backgrounds and other elements separately and then combine them with the figures using Photoshop. I might then print out the combined image and draw more on top of that. This allows me to experiment with different settings, textures, and shading. Some drawings may have five or more iterations before I decide on the best way of capturing the scene.

My career as an artist has mainly been devoted to “literary portraits,” oil paintings in which I depict a character from classic literature, conjuring their personality and inner life and evoking the atmosphere of the book. My undergraduate degree was in English, with a focus on Victorian literature, and my Master’s Degree was in classical painting techniques from the New York Academy of Art. I love combining my two interests, doing close readings of texts and then using the process of painting both to show my vision of them and also to create a dialogue with the original text. Some of my most inspiring experiences as an artist have occurred when different disciplines come together and almost magically cross-pollinate.

I had one of those experiences as the artist in residence for the Paideia Institute’s Living Greek in Greece program in 2019. I spent that time drawing and painting participants of the program as characters from ancient Greek literature. It was a thrilling experience because my subjects were able to contribute their own understandings of the characters, drawn from their immersive study of Ancient Greek language and literature, and it was a true give and take as their ideas and mine combined in the drawings.

My illustrations for the Dolphin Editions have, in part, evolved from that project, but more than that, they are a return to my earliest artistic experiences. My very first formal art training centered upon drawing from Classical sculptures. I lived in Paris for two years as a teenager, and I took classes at the Louvre, learning drawing techniques by copying from the works of the masters. Since then, I have kept up the practice of learning by drawing at museums, and I now teach in the Drawing Salon program at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The charcoal I use, which is literally made from burnt sticks and vines, is the same material that humans first used to create art. In this way, it connects me not only to my first artistic training, but also to the most ancient art. For this project, charcoal was particularly effective at creating planes of light and shadow in a way that evokes ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.

As I went about illustrating the five texts, I spent a good deal of time looking at Classical sculpture for inspiration. I also sought out the etchings of Rembrandt and the engravings of Gustave Doré for clues as to how to use light and shadow to create atmosphere. I looked to the Pre-Raphaelite painters, who so effectively, dramatically, and beautifully reimagined scenes from literature and mythology. I also turned to other artists who translate words into artwork, or rather as Henri Turat said of Rodin’s sculpture The Gates of Hell: “It’s not a translation, it’s a conjuration.”

One question that emerged frequently in the course of this project was that of historical accuracy. I quickly discovered that for many elements of these texts there is no one right answer to this question. For The Iliad, in particular, the actual events of the book are set around the 12th century BC, whereas the poem was probably composed during the 8th century BC. Many visual elements, such as costumes, methods of warfare, and architecture would have changed utterly in the course of the four hundred intervening years. For example, women in the 12th century BC, wore tight-fitting dresses, similar to those in Minoan artwork, whereas at the time of Homer, they wore loose-fitting, draped chitons. I was thus faced with the decision of whether to try to show scenes accurate to the time of the action, or to show them as Homer’s audience would probably have imagined them. Even after choosing one or the other, there are many things we can’t know about what life would have looked like in either time period, even without taking into consideration supernatural elements, like the gods who appear in the texts. Ultimately, I chose the later time period, because this fit with the images of Classical Greek art that had always inspired me.

To some extent, every illustrator faces the issue of how closely to stick to historical accuracy versus giving the imagination free rein to most effectively conjure up the atmosphere of the scene. I encountered this conundrum in illustrating the poems of Horace. I read them, and was immediately struck by the Romanticism and beauty of the images. I happened to have some friends who were willing to model as the characters in the poems, and one of them in particular seemed to possess the perfect poetic demeanor and dramatic ability to embody the narrator of the poems. He did a wonderful job of posing, and the drawings of the figures seemed to spring very naturally from the text itself. I later found out that the actual historical Horace was famously unattractive: short, round, and prematurely grey — a marked contrast to how I had chosen to depict him. I toyed with the idea of changing my drawings, but I ended up deciding that my drawings of a beautiful Horace embodied the ideas from the texts of the poems I had read, showing their beauty in a way that might differ from how they are traditionally envisioned, but perhaps no less true.

It has been an honor for me to bring to life my vision of these five wonderful texts. It has been a pleasure to enter into a dialogue with the authors of these ancient works and to work closely with the team at the Paideia Institute to make these Dolphin Editions as thoughtful and beautiful as possible.

Maud Taber-Thomas is an artist who specializes in oil paintings and charcoal drawings. Trained in classical techniques at the New York Academy of Art, and with a background in English literature from Bowdoin College and Oxford University, Maud Taber-Thomas draws inspiration for her evocative portraits, interiors, and landscapes from the narratives and characters of classic literature. Her works, which range in scale from miniature to larger than life, capture the vibrant light and color of far-off places and distant time periods.

Maud lives in Maryland, and teaches at the National Gallery of Art and the Yellow Barn Studio. She has been the recipient of the Paideia Institute’s Brightheart Fellowship, a Terra Foundation residency in Giverny, France, a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award, and an Attingham Trust Summer School Royal Oak Scholarship. Her illustrations appear in Chance Particulars: A Writer’s Field Notebook by Sara Mansfield Taber. Her work is represented by Susan Calloway Fine Arts, in Washington, DC and can be viewed at MaudTaber-Thomas.com.


Illustrating the Dolphin Editions was originally published in In Medias Res on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: in medias res

Illustrating the Dolphin Editions