Joslyn Art Museum

Omaha, NE



Elihu Vedder's Drawings for the Rubaiyat


Left to right: Elihu Vedder, Cover, 1883-1984, watercolor on paper; Elihu Vedder, The Cup of Death, 1883-1884, chalk, pencil and ink on paper

In the ten months from May 1883 to March 1884, American artist Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) completed a series of 54 drawings in pencil, ink, chalk, and watercolor to accompany the 1884 edition of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. All of these original drawings, which were proclaimed a masterwork of American art, are included in the special exhibition Elihu Vedder's Drawings for the Rubaiyat from the National Museum of American Art on view at Joslyn Art Museum from September 26,1998 through January 3, 1999. The exhibition will also include two first edition printings of Khayyam's Rubaiyat with Vedder's "accompaniments" (he disliked the term illustrationsj.

Left to right: Elihu Vedder, The Vain Pursuit, 1883-1984, chalk, pencil, ink and watercolor on paper; Elihu Vedder, Omar's Horoscope, 1883-1884, chalk, pencil, ink and watercolor on paper; Elihu Vedder, The Throne of Saturn, 1883-1884, chalk, pencil, ink and watercolor on paper

Written ca. 1120 by Persian poet-philosopher Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), the Rubaiyat is a collection of quatrains, or poems of four lines, intended to prove the futility of mathematics, science, and religion in determining the meaning of life. First translated from Persian to English in 1859 by Edward Fitzgerald, editions of Khayyam's Rubaiyat have since appeared in numerous forms and languages, thebest-loved, best-known, and most elaborate being the 1884 edition illustrated and designed by Elihu Vedder.

Vedder was one of the first artists of his generation to train in Paris where he developed his signature Academic style and focused on what would become his favored subject: the classically proportioned female nude. In the years 1883 and 1884, he created 54 compositions to accompany the 1884 edition of Khayyam's Rubaiyat (published by Houghton, Mifflin) - drawings that serve as a harmonious frame for the text. Living in Rome at the time, Vedder also designed the book's cloth-bound cover, lining papers and eccentric hand-drawn letters. With his Academic and yet "visionary" style, Vedder was the ideal artist to interpret the Rubaiyat; he reconciled the critics who called for accurate depiction of observed reality with those who argued for feeling and emotion over objective form.

Additionally, Vedder arranged the verses to express the three stages of existence explored in the Rubaiyat -- happiness and youth; death and darkness; and rebirth -- as well as to fit his own romantic interpretation of the verses. Vedder's drawings for the book combine traditional Christian symbols, classical figures, and mystical imagery of his own invention to evoke the mood of Khayyam's poems. A prevalent device is his "cosmic swirl," which, according to Vedder, represented the "gradual concentration of elements that combined to form life; the sudden pause through the reverse of the movement which marks the instant of life; and then the gradual, ever-widening dispersion again of those elements into space."

Vedder's edition of Khayyam's Rubaiyat was an instant success, selling out only six days after its debut in Boston on November 8, 1884. With the Rubaiyat, Vedder set the standard for artist-designed books in America and England. Critics rushed to acclaim it as a masterwork, and Vedder as a major American artist.

This exhibition was organized and circulated by the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Joslyn Art Museum programs are supported in part by United Arts Omaha, the Nebraska Arts Council, and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. Joslyn thanks ConAgra, Inc., the Museum's 1998-99 United Arts Omaha partner, for its generous support.

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