10 Great Works of Literature and the Famous Artworks That Should Illustrate Them

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Literature and art often work best together. Walk into the New York Public Library and you’ll find a heaven of books amid decadent paintings. Frank O’Hara’s 1957 poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter,” is best read alongside Michael Goldberg’s painting, Sardines. More recently, Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs came up with Bookcam , a sculpture that, as its title suggests, is a working camera made out of books. And The Book Lovers, the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts‘ current exhibition, which features novels by Carl Andre, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol, is all about the relationship between books and art. The show inspired us to explore that relationship further by matching artworks to our favorite pieces of literature – we think these would make fantastic illustrations.

Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891)

The climate of the jungle in Rousseau’s painting is worlds apart from the biting Baltic cold of Obreht’s debut novel. Still, there’s something about The Tiger’s Wife that evokes Rousseau’s tiger. Both animals have a magical quality surrounding them, invoking a sense of childlike awe, perhaps like the kind Obreht’s protagonist experiences when her grandfather takes her to the zoo to see the tigers as a five-year-old. The tiger’s athleticism is fascinating. As Obreht writes, “The tiger had no destination, only the constant tug of self-preservation in the pit of his stomach, some vague, inborn sense of what he was looking for, which carried him onward.” This tiger’s pounce, in Rousseau’s painting, seems propelled by a similarly inward force, one that the viewer can’t see but is drawn to imagine stirring beneath his fur.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest and J.M.W. Turner’s Snow Storm, Snow-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842)

Turner’s masterly swirls of brushwork in this piece not only emulate the turbulent storm that rattles the end of The Tempest, but open the image up, like Shakespeare’s play, for interpretation on multiple levels. Turner’s masterpiece – if you squint – becomes abstract, and the ship engulfed in an ocean of paint, the many sheer layers of texture in the piece, suggest a sea itself adrift in another sea. The painting thus comes to resemble the larger shape of The Tempest itself as a floating meta-fiction. Looking longer at it, Turner’s piece takes hold of its own ethereality and of the viewer, as though by magic, under a Prospero-cast spell.

Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Jasper Johns’ Flag (1954-55)

In American Pastoral, Roth’s writer protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, reimagines the story of his former classmate, Swede Levov. Zuckerman’s intricate description of Levov’s family life reads like a grandiose family portrait with a seemingly glossy veneer that, on closer inspection, gives way to expose the subjects’ irreparably ruptured lives. Underneath its seemingly patriotic façade, Johns’ Flag is likewise composed of fragments, swatches of newspaper that suggest that there is no American dream, merely its semblance. If American Pastoral were a painting, it would surely be this one.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781)

A great gothic novel warrants a great gothic painting. The scene of Henri Fuseli’s menacing Nightmare is reminiscent of Lucy Westenra’s death in Dracula – reclining as though asleep, and innocent in virginal white. Yet, in spite of the painting’s darkness – its shadows and the shapes that form creepy-looking faces – or, perhaps because of it, there’s a sensuality inherent to the painting. Fuseli’s piece seems to capture our desire to experience reading a gothic novel; there is something profoundly shocking, and even sexy, in its lurid details.

Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Jackson Pollock’s Summertime (1948)

The New York of the 1940s that Hardwick conjures in Sleepless Nights is a polyphonic, palimpsest of a city, painted over again – much like Pollock’s stiffened canvases – with the excess of its inhabitants’ anxieties. Hardwick’s description of Billie Holiday’s voice reminds the reader of the cadences and crescendos of the drip method Pollock famously employed. Look at the scrawls of paint that beautifully bombard Summertime (which shares the name of the jazz standard Holiday performed) and you can feel the “large, swelling anxiety” of Holiday’s voice — improvised, free, and yet all-encompassing.

Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight and Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun (1952)

For Sasha Jansen, the heroine of Good Morning, Midnight, “life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking glasses I look nice in, looking glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.” Thus, life is lived vagariously, between one place and another. The lady peering from her room to the outside in Hopper’s Morning Sun is like Rhys’ heroine, perpetually in between. She is in one place, but her mind is elsewhere.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Constable’s Summer Morning (1830)

Reading Wuthering Heights, one feels that it could never be summer in those dreary Yorkshire moors. The broodiness of the landscape and the interior landscape of the novel’s richly complicated characters are embodied perfectly by this Constable. Life is going on in the picture – there’s a young man walking, and what looks like some kind of animal in the distance beside him – and yet there are these shadows that swallow up the lightness, as madness consumes Heathcliff, who one half expects to see tumbling through the hills, shouting after Cathy.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Francis Bacon’s Head I (1948)

When it comes to painting tormented figures of the flesh, Francis Bacon is the ultimate artist. His Head I shows a disembodied, half-there head that looks as though a person is either being put together or taken apart – whichever it is, the tension is part of what makes it an exciting picture. And it’s precisely this process of simultaneous composition and destruction – creating a monster to obliterate it – that fuels the dynamic tale of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We feel similarly toward Shelley’s monster as we do Bacon’s: an amalgam of pity, frustration, sadness, wonder.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies On the Water (2002)

To enter Yayoi Kusama’s immersive artwork, Fireflies On the Water, is to go down Alice’s rabbit hole – to enter a wonderland of light. Though the space’s overall darkness is alienating, it’s titillating to walk through its shower of lights and marvel. Insofar as Kusama’s artwork invites the viewer in, to engage in a playful adventure, we’re made to feel a little more like a child again, reminded of Alice’s sometimes scary but always exciting journey to Wonderland.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Vanessa Bell’s Interior With a Table (1921)

“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The famous opening line of Woolf’s great novel is simple, but elegant – like the sound of putting flowers in an empty vase. The quotidian is at the center of Mrs. Dalloway, as it is in this painting by Vanessa Bell – Woolf’s sister and another member of the Bloomsbury Group. Like Woolf’s prose, Bell’s painting offers its own ordered stream of consciousness, as everyday objects lead onto each other in the same way that the network of characters whose unremarkable, disparately led lives are brought together at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, collected like an arrangement of flowers to sit on the table by the window.