Ivan Bilibin

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942)

Ivan Bilibin was born in 1876 in St. Petersburg, Russia.  His first inspiration for illustrating fairy tales came from the Russian folktales he was told growing up.  He also had a great love for the remote Russian countryside, and incorporated the Russian landscape into many of his illustrations.  At the turn of the 20th century, his watercolors of the Russian wilderness earned him a commission from a member of The Department for the Production of State Documents to illustrate a series of fairytale books.  Some of the titles he illustrated include: Vasilisa the Beautiful (1900), The Firebird and the Grey Wolf (1899), Maria Morevna (1900), Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka (1901), and The White Duck (1902).  He continued illustrating Russian folktales and fairytales throughout his life, but also successfully worked as a stage designer for ballets and operas in France, moving to Paris in 1925.  In 1936 he returned to his beloved Russia.  He died in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the siege in February 1942. 

  -Sloan Blaylock

          “Sister Alënushka and Brother Ivanushka”

          Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka is a Russian version of the European classic Brother and Sister.  In this tale, a young boy and his older sister travel the Russian countryside since their parents’ death left them alone in the world.  Young Ivan begs his sister, Alyonushka, for water, but she warns against drinking from water shared with animals.  First, she advises against drinking from a stream near horses, then cattle, and finally goats, warning, “No, little brother, for if you do you will turn into a horse/cow/goat.”  However, little Ivanushka could resist no longer, and drank from the water near the goats.  He was immediately transformed into a goat, and followed Alyonushka loyally across the countryside.  The little goat wandered into the garden of the tsar one day, where Alyonushka caught the tsar’s eye.  He proposed to her, and all three lived together in a beautiful castle.  Their pleasant lives were interrupted by the appearance of an evil witch who threw Alyonushka to the bottom of the sea and took her place in the palace.  Only the little goat Ivanushka knew of this replacement.  The evil witch called for the goat to be slaughtered, but the tsar granted him one final wish, “to go to the shore and have a last drink from the sea.”  Ivanushka beckoned to his sister from the shore, and she crawled out into the arms of her husband who had been spying on Ivanushka.  The three returned to the castle, and Ivanushka was so joyous that he did three somersaults and returned to his human form.  Upon their return home, the witch was burnt in the very fire she had kindled for little Ivanushka and the tsar, Alyonushka and Ivanushka returned to their happy, peaceful lives.

          This image depicts the siblings at the very beginning of their journey.  Alyonushka gestures to the water, warning Ivanushka not to drink from it.  Cows and horses are depicted in the field, reiterating the curse that would befall anyone who drank from the stream.  Notice the rolling countryside and treeline, features of the Russian landscape that captivated Bilibin.  He even pays attention to the detail of fungi, which serve to border his illustration.

“Vasilisa the Beautiful” 

Ivan Bilibin’s illustrations for Vasilisa the Beautiful were originally published in 1900.  In this tale, young and beautiful Vasilisa is tormented by her stepmother with laborious, daily tasks.  Vasilisa is only able to complete them with the help of the magical doll her mother had given her on her death bed.  One day, the stepmother sent Vasilisa to retrieve fire from the witch, Baba Yaga.  Upon meeting Baba Yaga, Vasilisa finds herself again having to complete laborious tasks, only this time Vasilisa must complete them or die.  She completes the tasks with the help of her trusty doll, and Baba Yaga grants her fire in the form of a human skull torch.

This image depicts young and beautiful Vasilisa in a dark, ominous forest.  The viewer can see Baba Yaga’s house set upon chicken legs in the background.  In the foreground, Vasilisa tightly grips her skull torchlight, illuminating her path home.  Bilibin’s love for the Russian wilderness is apparent in this meticulous forest scene.  Several different kinds of vegetation are carefully drawn around the subject, Vasilisa, as well as in the decorative border filled with different species of fungi.  Bilibin’s national pride is evident in the careful costume design of Vasilisa’s garment.  She is wearing both a traditional dress as well as traditional shoes.

“The White Duck”

Like many fairy tales, this story involves a wicked witch and her power to transform the human figure.  In the story The White Duck, an evil witch transforms a young princess into a duck and takes her place on the throne while her husband, the prince, is away on a sea journey.  When the prince returns, he does not suspect any malice.  Meanwhile, the duck/princess lays three golden eggs, which hatch into three boys.  The witch then waves her hand over the boys, preventing them from returning to their mother, the white duck.  The white duck proceeds to call out to her children, warning them about the witch, although it proved to be too late for them.  The prince overhears the commotion and approaches the duck, who flies into his arms.  At this moment, the witch turns into a spindle, which the prince breaks.  His lovely wife is transformed back into her human form, and with the help of a magpie, the prince and princess sprinkle a vial of water over their children.  The witch’s spell is broken and the whole family lives happily ever after, without any further mention of the witch. 

This image represents the young princess gazing out of a tower while her beloved prince sails away.  She does not yet know the danger that awaits her, and her isolation is underlined by her solitude in the tower.

“Sister Alyënuska and Brother Ivanuska”

This image depicts the tsar spying on the little goat, Ivanushka, at the sea.  It is at this moment that the tsar learns that his beloved wife has been cast into the sea and a wicked witch has taken her place on the throne.  He quickly helps pull Alyonushka to the shore as she crawls from the depths of the ocean.  After their joyous reunion, the three return to the castle and the evil witch is put to death.