The Visual Art and Design of Famous Writers, Part 2

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When last we visited, we were examining the visual art of famous authors. But as I continued to dig into this subject, I realized that I had shown just the tip of the iceberg. Here, then, are an additional 22 writers who also spent time creating art.

Hermann Hesse self-portrait, 1917

Above and below: Hesse illustrations for "The Metamorphosis of Piktor"

The German novelist and poet Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) was also quite an accomplished artist. Indeed, in 1921, an album of his watercolors was issued by a Munich publisher, and the following year he illustrated his own fairy tale, The Metamorphosis of Piktor, in a limited edition. These stand as prescient illustrations of what would come to be known as the Push Pin Studio style more than three decades later. Sadly, the only English edition of this work has been out of print since 1972.

Above and below: untitled paintings by D. H. Lawrence

Equally as proficient was D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930). While Lawrence created art throughout his life, it became his main form of expression in his later years, culminating in a solo show at the Warren Gallery in London in 1928–29, with as many as 13,000 visitors. It was raided by police on “grounds of immorality.”

Charlotte Brontë, "Ashburnham Church," 1845

A Brontë drawing from 1829

As children, the novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) and her sister Emily kept each other and their two sisters amused with drawings of classic ruins, biblical scenes, and landscapes. She continued this practice while writing, decorating her manuscripts with intricate pencils and watercolors.

Above and below: "Scissor Fantasies" by Hans Christian Andersen

It is of little surprise that the children’s author Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) created art. But his tool of choice is surprising: scissors. He cut paper to delight his young audience, with fantastic figures of dancers, swans, storks, and castles. He also liked to draw and left behind several albums of his sketches and writings.

A view of Cincinnati by Washington Irving, 1832

Washington Irving (1783–1859) studied art in his youth and was almost persuaded to become a painter when he met the American artist Washington Allston during an 1805 visit to Rome. While writing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, he chose the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon.

Rafael Alberti, "Picasso’s Eyes," 1966

Alberti, "The Mermaid," 1979

Rafael Alberti (1902–1999) first became interested in painting while studying at a Jesuit College and had his first art show at age 16 in Madrid. In addition to writing poetry, he continued to work in art, much like his friend and fellow Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. In 1954, he published a collection of his drawings in a limited edition of 100 copies.

Edward Lear, "Ara Macao," 1830

Lear's cover for "A Book of Nonsense"

An unpublished Lear drawing created to entertain Lord Derby’s grandchildren

Edward Lear (1812–1888) worked as an artist and, at age 16, was employed by the Zoological Society as a “ornithological draughtsman.” From 1832 to 1836, he continued this work for the Earl of Derby, who had a private menagerie. As a tutor to Lord Derby’s grandchildren, he created limericks (a form that he popularized) and rhymes alongside humorous drawings to keep them amused. Six illustrated limericks appeared in his Book of Nonsense, first published in 1846.

G. K. Chesterton, "Enraged Gentleman and His Victim"

Chesterton, "Three Acres and a Cow" (self-portrait)

The English writer G. K. Chesterton, (1874–1936) studied at the Slade School of Art with the intention of becoming an illustrator. But his writing career soon took over his time and attention.

Goethe, "Evocation of the Spirit of the Earth"

A Goethe watercolor depicting a "liberty pole" at the border to the short-lived Republic of Mainz, created during the French Revolution and destroyed in the Siege of Mainz (in which Goethe participated). The sign reads “Passer-by, this land is free.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a writer, an artist, and a politician. In addition to his numerous literary works, including 1810’s Theory of Colours, he left behind nearly 3,000 drawings. He worked in various media, including watercolor, oils, engraving, and frescoes. “For my part, I should dissociate from speech altogether and, in an imitation of nature, express my thoughts only in design,” he once said. In 1821, he published 22 drawings in an album, and in the preface asked the readers to “judge my ability as well as my shortcomings.”

A Charles Godfrey Leland illustration printed on the verso of subscription notices for "Knickerbocker Magazine"

Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903) was born in Philadelphia and educated at Princeton University and in Europe. While primarily known as a humorist and folklorist, he initially made his mark in journalism. He was also a champion of art and design education, believing that the industrial arts should be a branch of education in school, and his writings became an influence on the Arts and Crafts movement. He was also the founder and first director of the Public School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia.

Nikolai Gogol's cover design and illustration for "Dead Souls"

Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852) was one author whose illustrations were used on the covers of his books, including his classic Dead Souls. Indeed, he originally set out to be a painter and studied art alongside writing in Nizhyn, in northern Ukraine, from 1820 till 1828. He wrote, “My imagination . . . has never created anything that my eyes have not chanced upon somewhere in Nature.”

A Thomas Hardy sketch his book of verse, "Wessex Poems"


Hardy, "S. Juliet (before restoration)," 1870

Thomas Hardy(1840–1928), the son of a builder, was trained as an architect and won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association. Shortly after his last major commission, to restore the church of St. Juliot on Cornwell, his first novels were published.

A George Russell painting (above) and self-portrait (below)

George Russell (1867–1935) was educated at Rathmines School and the Metropolitan School of Art, and worked as editor of the Irish Homestead from 1906 to 1923. He sometimes signed his written and visual works with the pseudonym “Æ.” He believed himself to be clairvoyant, and illustrated the souls he viewed in paintings and drawings.

Gottfried Keller's sketch of a medieval town, 1843

The Swiss poet and novelist Gottfried Keller (1819–1890) set out to be an artist first, becoming an apprentice to the landscape painter Steiger and the watercolorist Rudolf Meyer. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1940 before abandoning art for writing in 1842.

Above and below: untitled paintings by Carlo Levi

Before making his name as a novelist (and also earning his medical degree), Carlo Levi (1902–1979) set out to make his name as a painter. He wrote, “Of the many enterprises I have undertaken in my life, I consider only two to be fundamental, painting and writing.” Between 1929 and 1934, he held solo art exhibits in Rome, London, Milan, Turin, Genoa, and Paris. He was exiled to the isolated village of Aliano in Lucania for anti-fascist activity, where he gave medical assistance to the peasants in defiance of the authorities, and said that year “had more influence on my painting than any period in my life.”

"On the Road to Erzerum," an Alexander Pushkin self-portrait drawn on his first draft of "Voyage to Erzerum," 1829

Pushkin was in love with Anna Alexevyena Olenina when he drew this portrait of her.

The Russian novelist, dramatist, and poet Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) covered his manuscripts and notebooks in innumerable drawings of the characters he wrote about: his friends, women he loved, and his family. One of his biographers referred to these sketches as Pushkin’s “graphic diary.”

Above and below: August Strindberg paintings from 1903

August Strindberg (1849–1912) is considered to be one of Sweden’s most important writers, producing over 60 plays and more than 30 works of fiction, autobiography, history, cultural analysis, and politics. He also was a serious student of painting, creating works in the impressionist style.

A portrait by George Sand of her paramour, the composer Frédéric Chopin

George Sand was the pseudonym for French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804–1876). Early on, she tried to earn a living by painting flowers and birds on snuff boxes. Later, she assisted her son Maurice, a painter, illustrator, designer, and sculptor, with decorating a theater and a marionettes theater in her native town of Nohant.

A Sean O'Casey self-portrait

The dramatist Sean O’Casey (1884–1964) sketched stage sets and interiors in his notebooks, and was fond of self-portraits. His son Breon was an artist and craftsman and closely associated with the St Ives School of painters and sculptors in Cornwall.

A hand-drawn map by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850–1894) Treasure Island began as a map. Stevenson drew a 16-by-10-inch map with his school-age stepson and later wrote, “the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression: it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets: with the unconscious of the predestined, I ticketed my performance Treasure Island.” He had studied both drawing and engineering as a youth, and left behind a number of landscapes and wood engravings.

Above and below: 21. Wash drawings by Paul Valéry. He studied with Degas.

In 1956, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris held a posthumous exhibit of the work of the poet, essayist, and philosopher Paul Valéry (1871–1845) that displayed myriad paintings, drawings, watercolors, sketches, and sculptures. Nine drawing books were shown, the first created when he was 17 and the last when he was 71. During his lifetime, he illustrated a number of his own works, including The Graveyard by the Sea.

Leo Tolstoy drawings of old men

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) produced 160,000 pages of manuscripts, many featuring accompanying pen-and-ink and pencil drawings. He believed the visual arts could unite men in bonds of love and friendship, but was convinced he had no artistic talent. Still, when he read Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days to his children, he set about illustrating it for their amusement.

Tolstoy illustrations for "Around the World in Eighty Days," created for the amusement of his children


Be sure to check out Steven Brower’s first post on the art and design of literary greats. For even more drawings and sketches by creative minds, see the book An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators, and Designers, now on sale at