‘Everything about her was white’: Edmund Dulac’s haunting ‘Ice-Maiden’

A beautiful young woman dressed in white is walking through snow and ice, accompanied by two polar bears that appear to be submissive and loyal. Her slim figure is silhouetted sharply against an inky blue starry sky. She wears a long gown and veil of shimmering white fabric, embroidered with pearls or crystals. She looks every inch a bride.

Bite-Size Museum talk in Brighton Museum on 13 December 2016.

Her face is turned towards the viewer, and we see her large, dark, almond-shaped eyes. Her cherry-red lips stand out against the cold colours of the picture. But there is another splash of red in the picture: she is holding a bright red heart in her hands, blood dripping from it through her fingers. It is a detail you only see at second glance, once you are drawn into the painting, and trapped by its beauty, brilliance and darkness. What is the story behind this mysterious painting in our collections?

The Ice-Maiden is a small watercolour and gouache painting by the French-born and later anglicised artist Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). Dulac had studied art in Paris, but moved to London in 1904, where he carved out a career as one of the most prolific artists of what is often called the ‘golden age of book illustration’, the early 20th century, when colour plates became easier and cheaper to produce and boards were often elaborately decorated and tooled. While Brighton-born illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) was still working in black and white, the next generation of artists were part of the craze for colour plate ‘gift books’ on all kinds of subjects. These lavishly illustrated large-format books were marketed as collectible gifts, especially for Christmas, and publishers worked closely with galleries, where the original artwork was displayed and offered for sale around the time of publication.

Dulac specialized in creating beautifully detailed pictures for fairy-tales and Romantic novels and was quickly snapped up by Hodder & Stoughton, who were then working with the Leicester Galleries in London. The book that made him a household name was Stories from The Arabian Nights (published in 1907), which included no fewer than 50 colour plates. Among his contemporaries in the same field were Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Kay Nielsen (1886–1957) and Charles Robinson (1870-1937).

The frontispiece and title page of The Dreamer of Dreams, showing Dulac’s Ice-Maiden

The painting of the Ice-Maiden came into our collection in 1953 and is our only Dulac, but we do have a handful of Rackham drawings. Interestingly, the mysterious lady baffled curators until the 1970s, as no-one knew who she was or what story she was telling. Eventually the link was made to the book in which The Ice-Maiden was used as the main illustration, on the pictorial dust-jacket and as the frontispiece. It was one of six plates for the popular book The Dreamer of Dreams, published in 1915 by Hodder & Stoughton in London, New York and Toronto. The fantasy novel was written by Queen Marie of Romania (1875 – 18 July 1938), a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. A year later Dulac also illustrated a second book by Queen Marie, The Stealers of Light. Marie, who was Queen of Romania from 1914 to 1927, was a dedicated supporter of the Romanian Red Cross and frequently visited hospitals during the First World War. Around the time of the publication of these two books Romania joined the Allies against the Central Powers.

The Dreamer of Dreams tells the magical story of Eric Gundian, an artist at the Court of the Northern King Wanda, who is working on a large frieze painting in the royal palace but is unable to finish the face of the last female figure in the painting. After a vision in a dream, Eric goes on a search for the perfect pair of eyes to complete his painting. The Ice-Maiden is a beautiful stranger whom he meets in a snowy northern kingdom. Dulac’s picture illustrates the moment he first sees her:

“All the splendour of the night, the dazzling brilliancy, the vast snow-field, the glory of the moon, the myriad stars, all paled before the beauty of the woman that now approached. Everything about her was white, glistening and shining; so shining that the human eye could hardly bear the radiance. Her long white hair hung about her; a circle of glow-worms surrounded her forehead. Her head was bent, still gazing on that which she held in her hand. On either side marched one of the great bears like two guardians. Just as she neared the spot where Eric stood she once more bent to the snow, and with almost loving precaution raised something in her hand. As she did so her eyes met Eric’s – they were beautiful eyes – large, dark, blazing like two burning coals.”

The decorated front board of The Dreamer of Dreams (1915)

Despite her dazzling beauty, hers are not the eyes Eric is looking for, but he nevertheless engages with her and listens to her story. So what about the bleeding heart she is holding? It turns out that the beautiful maiden is not sinister at all: she goes out at night in search of broken hearts, which she picks up from the frozen plains. She takes them back to her castle built of ice, which has distinct similarities to the Snow Queen’s castle in Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805–1875) fairytale from 1844. In her ice castle she places the hearts in a circle of burning flames to keep them warm. Many of Dulac’s and his contemporaries’ illustrations walk this narrow path between beauty and cruelty, mystery and menace, and one wonders whether they were actually created for children. The Ice-Maiden is one of the best examples of Dulac’s work and the ‘golden age of book illustration’ in general.

For conservation reasons The Ice-Maiden is not permanently on display, but we brought her out of storage briefly for a Bite-Size Museum talk on 13 December 2016, to accompany The Great Bear exhibition on the north balcony of Brighton Museum. We asked visitors to bring any copies of books illustrated by Dulac or his contemporaries and about half a dozen brought their much-loved ‘gift books’, including copies of the Arabian Nights and Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book, and a first edition of The Dreamer of Dreams. Early editions of Dulac’s books, with all plates intact and present are now hugely collectible. Both The Dreamer of Dreams and The Stealers of Light are among the rarest and most valuable of them, especially when the dust-jackets are still in place.

Alexandra Loske, Curator (Royal Pavilion Archives)