If there could be musical accompaniment to an illustration, this one would clearly begin in a low register and sound like, dun dun da dunnnn—the sequence of notes that might have filled the void during a frightening scene of a suspense movie. What a terrific illustration—it conveys sound, stealth, and suspense out of only paint on paper.
This image was created as one of the many illustrations made by Virginia Frances Sterrett for a 1928 publication of the Arabian Nights. In the tales of the Arabian Nights the Persian King’s young bride Scheherazade narrates stories that begin on one night and are completed on the following night in an attempt to evade the King’s decision to marry a bride one night and have her put to death the following morning so that his wives cannot be unfaithful as his first wife had been. Among the tales that Scheherazade relates are the stories of the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. In his old age Sinbad the Sailor relates the tales of his voyages to a poor porter also named Sinbad. The tale illustrated here tells of the older Sinbad who decides to once more go on a trading voyage. One night the ship he sails on stops at a deserted island and Sinbad goes ashore and falls asleep, when he awakes his ship has gone. On the island he spotted a giant bird and when it flew over him, Sinbad grabbed onto his leg and held on until he could drop onto the top of a large hill. In the valley below the ground is littered with diamonds, but they are protected by snakes, including a very large snake in a cave guarding its large egg.
Illustrator Sterrett conflated various aspects of the tale told to Sinbad the Porter into one suspenseful picture. So we see in the upper right the foot of the giant bird from whom Sinbad has hitched a ride; the large boulder-like snake egg behind the stealthy Sinbad; to the right of the egg the ship Sinbad had been on still anchored at the shore and the sea beyond it; and finally the illustration reveals colored circles denoting stars and planets in the pitch black night sky. The black of the sky serves to throw the lighter elements of the illustration into sharp focus. The unseen moon sheds enough light so that Sinbad the Sailor’s movement, gesture, and rags all cast a menacing shadow on the snake’s egg. Best of all Sterrett used her knowledge of color mutation when it is seen by the light of night to render a convincing picture.
Born in Chicago, Virginia Frances Sterrett was raised in Missouri and Kansas and returned to Chicago for high school and eventually studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her education came to an end when her mother’s health began to fail and Sterrett needed to support her family. Later in 1918 on a trip to St. Louis, Sterrett was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In 1919 she received her first commission to illustrate a book of fairy tales by Penn Publishing Co. of Philadelphia. In 1923 her family settled in Altadena, California and Sterrett continued to received commissions. She died in June of 1931 from a relapse of tuberculosis.
Her skill was so remarkable, that we admire the images she created as though they reflect reality instead of the exotic fantasy realm she manufactured to tell the book’s stories. Virginia Frances Sterrett’s illustrations are beautiful and memorable. She used her artistic skills and her wonderful imagination to bring the exotic, the picturesque, and the fanciful to life.Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) Scheherazade Went on with Her Story Illustration for Arabian Nights (Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Company, 1928)
March 8, 2012
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for AmericanVisual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum