Here Be Dragons: The Art of Fantasy Illustration

Michael Whelan, The Way of Kings

© Michael Whelan
Michael Whelan, The Way of Kings, 2010. 
From ancient mythology to Game of Thrones, an epic survey showcases the past, present, and future of this art form

From ancient mythology to Game of Thrones, an epic survey showcases the past, present, and future of this art form

© Donato Giancola

Donato Giancola, St. George and the Dragon, 2010.

“I thought that this really set up the exhibit quite well because it’s got the archetypal images here of the knight and the dragon and the historical reference between then and now.”

Jesse Kowalski

A knight in shining armor wields his sword against a horned dragon about to roast its prey. It’s a timeless image, rendered in stories and artwork for a thousand years, but reimagined by top fantasy artist Donato Giancola in his St. George and the Dragon, a classical-style painting from 2010 that heralds Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration a new exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum (NRM) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through October 31.

“I thought that this really set up the exhibit quite well because it’s got the archetypal images here of the knight and the dragon and the historical reference between then and now,” said curator Jesse Kowalski during a recent tour through the long-awaited exhibition.

Dragons are everywhere, perhaps none so famous as the one depicted in the 1977 painting used on the cover of the very first Dungeons & Dragons game. It’s the piece Kowalski said he is most excited to have in the show, as this is the first time the painting is on view to the public.

And Here There Be Dragons, a 2018 work on paper made by Hugo Award winner Charles Vess for the cover of the fiftieth-anniversary edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, is particularly noteworthy because Vess illustrated Le Guin’s characters the way she desired—as people of color. “Before she died, she finally got to see them the way she wanted them,” Kowalski said.

© James Warhola.

James Warhola, Magic Shop, 1985.

Beyond fire-breathing reptiles, however, are 100+ artworks, viewed not in chronological order, but according to four basic themes: heroes and adventure; fairy tales; mythology; and good versus evil. So a Renaissance engraving of a god creating the elements finds itself not too far from a digital print commissioned by HBO to promote the final season of Game of Thrones.

Of course, there are also the illustrations generally associated with the fantasy genre via mid-twentieth-century pulp magazines, paperbacks, and comics, but the idea behind the exhibition—the first of its kind—was to explore the full scope of fantasy art. “A lot of people have the misconception of fantasy, as, you know, women in bikinis or crazy-looking monsters,” said Kowalski, “but there is this rich history of fantasy. It’s really the oldest art form, narrative illustration.”

From Gustave Dorés political painting, The Black Eagle of Prussia (1871) to James Warhola’s beguiling Magic Shop (1985), each of these pictures is worth at least a thousand words.

Still, there’s no ignoring those scantily clad women, though few appear in this family-friendly exhibition. When Frank Frazetta’s Egyptian Queen sold at auction for $5.4 million in 2019, it forced people in the fine art community to take notice, Kowalski said. The titillating painting appeared on the cover of Eerie magazine in 1969. Frazetta, who died in 2010, has long been considered “the godfather of modern fantasy” and one of the artists responsible for upending the notion of fantasy illustration as lowbrow, according to Kowalski.

Two of Frazetta’s paintings are included in the exhibit: The Brain, a 1967 oil on canvas that also appeared on the cover of Eerie, and Escape From Venus, an oil from 1972 that appeared on the cover of the 1974 paperback re-issue of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of the same name. (The latter is on loan from George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art.) “It's funny to see a lot of these, and they were just magazine covers and book covers, and, you know, they're really great pieces of art,” said Kowalski.

Charles Vess, Here There Be Dragons
© Charles Vess

Charles Vess, Here There Be Dragons, 2018.

Donato Giancola, Bag End: Shadows of the Past
Donato Giancola

Donato Giancola, Bag End: Shadows of the Past, 2013.

James Gurney, Skeleton Pirate (left) and Garden of Hope (right)
© James Gurney.

(left) James Gurney, Skeleton Pirate, 1987. (right) James Gurney, Garden of Hope, 1994.

Tyler Jacobson, Red Dragon
© Tyler Jacobson.

Tyler Jacobson, Red Dragon, 2014.

Petar Meseldžija, Gandalf
© Petar Meseldžija.

Petar Meseldžija, Gandalf, 2001.

Victo Ngai, The Green Children of Woolpit (left) and The Hand of the Queen (right)
© Victo Ngai.

(left) Victo Ngai, The Green Children of Woolpit, 2019. (right) Victo Ngai, The Hand of the Queen, 2019.

Eric Velhagen, Mulan
© Eric Velhagen.

Eric Velhagen, Mulan, 2018.

Rose O’Neill, The Kewpies and their Fairy Cousin
public domain

(left) Rose O’Neill, The Kewpies and their Fairy Cousin, 1916. (right) Tracy Porter Rudd, Winsome Angel, 1923.

Whether women felt objectified or discouraged, fantasy artists and fans alike skewed heavily male well into the 1970s. As he put together the exhibition, Kowalski found only a handful of women whose work fit within the broad parameters he set for Enchanted, including Golden Age illustrators Jessie Willcox Smith, Violet Oakley, and Rose O’Neill. In recent decades, that has changed, and he estimated that women fantasy artists have attained about forty percent of the market.

© Anna Dittmann.

Anna Dittmann, I Dreamt I Could Fly, 2017.

Julie Bell’s Pegasus Befriends the Muses (2018) is “probably one of the most popular works in the exhibit,” said Kowalski. The oil on wood commands attention with its dynamic and powerful use of color. Bell pursued a career in bodybuilding and became a model for fellow fantasy artist (and exhibitor) Boris Vallejo, whom she later married.

Lindsey Look, who like many of fantasy’s ‘next gen’ is making art for the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, has a dazzling portrait of Rapunzel on exhibit. “In the same way that Norman Rockwell showed us the unnoticed stories and minutiae of American life, the illustrations in this exhibit bring us humans together through tales of alternate realities and magical places,” she commented. “It’s breathtaking to see so much fantasy art in a museum setting, and it’s the honor of a lifetime to be a part of it.”

For illustrators of Rockwell’s era, making magazine and book cover art provided a source of income, and when that declined, illustrators were left with fewer options. For those of Look’s generation (millennial), the immense popularity of gaming and fantasy drama and the related need for concept art-infused new life into the art form, said Kowalski.

Anna Dittmann’s ethereal portraits, Alessandra Pisano’s photorealist paintings of women and exotic animals, and Justin Gerard’s watercolors (blend J.R.R. Tolkien with Maxfield Parrish) represent the future of fantasy. So too Scott Fischer, who has worked on D&D, Magic: The Gathering, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics, and claimed the honor of having the most recent work on view: an acrylic ink on panel of a dragon inspired by a betta fish, finished just three weeks ago.

Kowalski discovered many of the younger artists, some of whom are being seen for the first time in a major museum, mostly by word of mouth from other artists and collectors in this close-knit community, he said. Some are also Spectrum Award winners. While the NRM typically focuses on American illustrators, this exhibition opened the door to a more diverse group in order to present the best work by the best fantasy artists.

“They are really good paintings and they are good artists,” said Kowalski. “I don’t think they’ve gotten their due, so I hope this show turns that around a little bit.”

About the Author

Rebecca Rego Barry

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine.

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