Carl Offterdinger and his vintage illustrations

by Tolovaj

Carl Offterdinger was a famous German illustrator who made huge impact as an illustrator of fairy tales and adventure stories.

Carl Offterdinger is one of the most famous German illustrators of all times. As all illustrators from the 19th century, he started as a painter, studying at the classical art academy, exploring different media and styles, had a chance to experiment to see how his work pans out after replication with numerous new printing techniques, and finally became a professor.

This, of course, secured his financial position and gave him even more options to explore. Today we know him mostly by illustrations of fairy tales and adventure stories which are still reprinted in new versions of old collections.

Here are 10 characteristic illustrations by Carl Offterdinger:


Carl Offterdinger (1829-1889) was born in Stuttgart where he lived and worked for most of his life. His first important influence was Heinrich von Rustige, who was a typical representative of art school in Dusseldorf and carried his knowledge to Stuttgart when he became a professor himself.

Von Rustige's sense for composition, bright colors, and lively characters. Offterdinger inherited these characteristics from him, which eventually directed his career in genre paintings, especially in the field of fairy tales.

1 The Hare and the Hedgehog (Fairy Tales by Grimm Brothers)

When we are talking about vintage German illustrators, fairy tales by Brothers Grimm came first to one's mind and Offterdinger was no exception. The presented illustration is from a bit less known story about the race between the hare and the hedgehog. A complete story with illustrations made by another master from approximately the same is available here:


2 Puss in Boots

We can describe Carl Offterdinger's style as of late romantic. While he definitely made significant changes in his technique, his compositions stayed idyllic right to the end and artistic directions which appeared in his lifetime made hardly any impact on him. Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts, for instance, movements, where Walter Crane accomplished so much, seemed to completely bypass Offterdinger. Same is true for Pre-Raphaelites.

You probably recognized the illustration from Puss in Boots, from the same book as both illustrations above. This fairy tale was written by Charles Perrault in is still best known in his version. The problematic morals of the fairy tale about the Master Cat inspired numerous artists to rewrite the story. One example (completely illustrated by Offterdinger) can be found here:

As you can read in the article, the artist completely failed to improve the Perrault's work but we can still enjoy in Offterdinger's superbly executed pictures.


3 Aladdin from 1001 Nights

Offterdinger's work by no means stayed limited to European literary works. The illustration above belongs to Aladdin and His Magic Lamp from 1001 Nights. It's another fine example of his superb perception of composition and colors, both perfectly synchronized with the advanced yet still pretty imperfect process of chromolithography.

This specific illustration was published by Jouvet, Paris, in 1884.


4 The Nutcracker

The story of Nutcracker is one of classic works which mark the Christmas time just like Dicken's Christmas Carol or Home Alone film series. Originally it's written by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, a writer and a composer who inspired hundreds of artists all over the world. His novel about the Nutcracker and Mouse King, as you probably know, is today best known in the form of ballet by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.


5 Pied Piper of Hamelin

Warm colors and soft curvier lines became a kind of standard in the field of children illustration. Book publishers became aware of specific needs in the market of picture books and simple transformation of the painting as a graphic display of the scene in the story was simply not good enough. The profession of the illustrator started to form as a separate profession. Simultaneously with that illustrators became more valued and Offterdinger was among the finest of all.

He managed to make even the character of creepy Piper of Hamelin more kid-friendly. His aquarelle paintings were painstakingly transformed on a series of plates which were then combined into a final print which became as similar to the original (many of them are now hanged in the top museums in the world, is any comes in auction easily achieves the price of several thousand US dollars) as possible.


6 Till Eulenspiegel

Till Eulenspiegel is today almost forgotten character, originally coming from the Netherlands, but soon adapted and adopted in the majority of Europe.

He is funny, witty, shameless, and always ready for action.

With this character, we somehow complete Offterdinger's illustration of fairy tales and stories for kids what gives us an opportunity to explore his work for youth and adults in another popular genre: adventure fiction.

Which characteristic of Carl Offterdinger's illustrations impressed you most of all?

7 Gullivers Travels

An illustration from another classic - Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is one of the oldest Offterdinger's works for book publishers, printed at the beginning of the second half of 19th century. It reveals many disadvantages of then still a new chromolithographic process. Lines are vague, colors blurred, many details, so typical for old masters of illustration, simply lost. We can still feel Offterdinger's recognizable style.


8 The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

This illustration was done a few decades later and, what is more important, printed with heavily improved printing technique where the brush of Offterdinger managed to spark the life in literary characters, helping them to come to life in the reader's imagination. This example is from one of the later editions, published after Offterdinger's death.

Like several other books, including the ones already presented, it was done in collaboration with other artists, in this case with Walter Zweigle. All illustrations from the original book are available on the next link:


9 Leatherstocking Tales

Leatherstocking Tales is a title of the series written by James Fenimore Cooper, best known by The Last of the Mohicans. Work of this American Writer, who was a Romantic, just like Grimms and Offterdinger, was introduced to German readers with great success. Vivid illustrations like this one were an important part of this.


10 Liechtenstein

Our journey around the world with Offterdinger's illustrations is finished by another great name from German literary heritage. Wilhelm Hauff was a great fairy tale writer, very productive in other literary areas as well, yet unfortunately already dead before his 25th birthday. His complete works were illustrated by Carl Offterdinger with the presented picture from historical novel Liechtenstein. The novel was so influential, it inspired a rebuilding of the old Lichtenstein Castle and a composition of the opera by Peter Josef von Lindpaintner.

Updated: 05/08/2019, Tolovaj
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Tolovaj on 02/29/2024

If I remember corectly he was very disappointed by their ignorance. After all, they included his fairy tale into their first edition and his first succes in the field of literature for kids was titled German Fairy Tales (not Danish). On the other hand, Charles Dickens knew him very well but this is a completely different story. Let's focus on Carl Offterdinger:)

DerdriuMarriner on 02/29/2024

Thank you!

It's quite humorous and quite intriguing to imagine how little Hans Christian Andersen perhaps liked not being known by two such makers and shakers as the Brothers Grimm in his fairy-tale corner of the literary world!

Tolovaj on 02/29/2024

Well, brothers lived and worked together for the most of their lives. I am not sure if they ever encountered Carl Offterdinger. But I know they had no idea who was H. C. Andersen, when they were introduced to each other.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/29/2024

Thank you!

The first paragraph under the first subheading, The hare and the hedgehog (Fairy tales by Grimm Brothers), considers that "When we are talking about vintage German illustrators, fairy tales by Brothers Grimm came first to one's mind and Offterdinger was no exception."

The three lives somewhat overlapped: Jacob Grimm (Jan. 4, 1785–Sep. 20, 1863), Wilhelm Grimm (Feb. 24, 1786–Dec. 16, 1859) and Carl Offterdinger (Jan. 8, 1829-Jan. 12, 1889).

Would it be possible that the three knew one another?

Tolovaj on 12/29/2023

Both brothers tried to do as much as possible to unite many different areas of today's Germany (which was not a state at their times) through common charactersitics. Language was one and shared stories another. People who share the stories (often hundreds of years old) are most likely to unite under one flag what was very important when they were fighting Napoleon.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/28/2023

Thank you for the link at the end of the first-listed Offterdinger illustration, The hare and the hedgehog (fairy tales by Grimm Brothers).

That link's Children's and household tales by Brothers Grimm site begins with The hare and the hedgehog article May 4, 2019, by KHM1812. That article describes Wilhelm Grimm as the brother "who tried to connect every story with mythology if it was due or not."

Why did Wilhelm Grimm want to back Grimm-collected fairy tales mythologically?

Tolovaj on 12/27/2023

I agree, DerdriuMarriner.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/27/2023

The first characteristic Offterdinger illustration, The hare and the hedgehog, appears as an attractive example of the Heinrich von Rustige's influences upon Offterdinger images.

Do you not find that the hare in his running stance and the hedgehog in his crouching position equate nicely to a running person and to a crouching person? That respect for sentient bodies immobile and mobile feature in the online-sourced Rustige images.

Tolovaj on 09/04/2019

Thanks, DerdriuMarriner, it's always a pleasure to see you stopping by. I think Offterdinger's work on Grimm's fairy tales is my favorite, but it's hard to choose just one single picture.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/20/2019

Tolovaj, Thank you for the images, information and products.
Which one is your favorite of the nine illustrations?
Offterdinger is particularly adept at conveying action, character and mood with an economy of implied emotions, poses and thoughts. His animals, vegetation and yellows especially seem impressive, across all artistic times and for his time's technology.

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