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It’s obvious to an observer of Virginia Frances Sterrett’s book illustrations that the artist lived in a different universe from the one we inhabit. Her interpretation of Old French Fairy Tales gives us sparkling palaces and dragons under an unnaturally glowing blue sky.
Virginia Frances Sterrett spent her childhood in a fairyland of her own making. She preferred her art to the company of her classmates and by a young age won awards for her efforts.
Her story is rife with the sadness of losing her father at the young age. After receiving a scholarship to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, she had to put her education on hold to care for her ailing mother. Virginia was the sole income earner of the household. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 19.
In 1919, she accepted a commission by the Penn Publishing Company to illustrate Old French Fairy Tales by Comptesse de Ségur. Sterrett received $500 for her work and additional commissions to work on Tanglewood Tales and later Arabian Nights.
Virginia Frances Sterrett’s life was short but immensely productive. She died in 1931. Upon her death, the St Louis Post-Dispatch wrote:
Her achievement was beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil. Almost unschooled in art, her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood … Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young artist’s work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.
To acquire a vintage copy of Old French Fairy Tales with these illustrations, you have to pay a couple hundred dollars. The trickiest part might be finding a book in good condition in the first place.
If you want to peruse the illustrations and read the book in English, the Internet Archive has a copy available online.
Here are a few items featuring Virginia Frances Sterrett’s illustrations of Old French Fairy Tales if you are so inclined:
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