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On a green island

By Emily Sitsia

During COVID-confinement I was on a green island. In residence at the Iméra in an apartment into a gone-wild-locked-up park, it was easy to think of Robinson. I had started working on the analysis of Grandville’s 1840 illustrations of Robinson Crusoe in winter, for the Center for Literary and Intermedial Crossings-day and presented a first version in busy Brussels. But now writing the article, on my very own island of green made it somehow more reflective.

The core of the argument is that illustrators are privileged readers of literary texts. Indeed, their reading of the text takes a visual form and a place of honor within the book itself. The synchronic nature of images means that illustrators’ interpretations impact greatly viewers/readers. Furthermore, the placement of images side by side with the text disputes the authority of the text itself. With each new illustration, stories are retold, re-appropriated by various cultures, and updated to fit their time. As such illustrations of literary texts are both a reception and an adaptation of the text.

The article aims to investigate what illustrations can say about the reception of Robinson Crusoe in a specific historical, political and social environment. I discuss the role of illustration as a visual reception of the text and ask how do 19th century French illustrations reflect the cultural, social and political fabric of their own time? 

J. J. Grandville’s illustrations of Robinson Crusoe are particularly interesting in this regard. While Grandville is known as a master of imagination and fantastic representation for his anthropomorphic works and proto-surrealist albums, he was a versatile artist. 

Like many illustrators of the time he produced caricatures, illustrated books and drawings for illustrated press and was very aware of the variety of his audience. His adaptation of Robinson Crusoe  (206 images!) shows him merging escapism with the educational visual vocabulary of ethnographic representation, weave together influences of French and British painting as well as popular culture, create ambiguous religious and moral messages, make images at the cusp between adventure, scientific and fantastic illustration. But where Grandville excels is when he subtly challenges the text with his images and destabilizes our reading of Robinson. Indeed Grandville gives us a Romantic reading focusing on the emotions of the characters; he questions the colonial message of the text, emphasizing the cruelty of the colonizers; he presents to us a Robinson that is both the hero we expect and a reflective anti-hero. Furthermore, the sheer number of images creates a parallel visual storytelling that challenges the textual fabric of the narrative. 

This edition of Robinson Crusoe has received very little attention from art historians and literary scholars and we hope the article that will be published soon theJournal for Literary and Intermedial Crossings will be a first step towards a reassessment of Grandville’s (and other’s) illustration critical power.