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  • Writer's pictureTim Prasil

Beastly Illustrations: How Beauty's Beast Has Been Historically Visualized

As we eagerly move forward to Opening Night of the Town & Gown production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, I decided to do something I do very well: look the wrong way. That is, I'm going to look to the past of this beloved fable and see what there is to see.

What has become known as "Beauty and the Beast" almost certainly was part of a widespread, centuries-old oral tradition. However, published versions are often traced to Gabrielle-Szanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who included a fairly long telling of it in La Jeune Américaine et les contes marins (1740). Keeping the title "La Belle et la Bête," Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont then shortened the story and put it in her collection Le Magasin des enfans (1758). Presumably, this abridgment is what jumped the Channel and appeared in English. I can't be sure when this first happened, but I found a 1769 version of the tale published in Scotland.

Think of that. The United States wasn't even a thing yet, and "Beauty and the Beast" was already in print internationally. Now, I haven't found online scans of either original French publication, but that Scottish one has no illustrations. This isn't very surprising. While including woodcuts, engravings, or other kinds of images in books and pamphlets was not unheard of in the 1700s and earlier, it wasn't until the 1800s that illustrations gradually became much more common.

This got me wondering how the Beast was depicted historically, especially in books released in the 1800s and early 1900s. Interestingly, the character was far from consistent. Different artists borrowed from different animals -- a generous portion of wolf, a heaping helping of elephant, a dash of walrus, a pinch of wart hog -- to cook up an image that would help young and old readers visualize the cursed prince. Meanwhile, the Beast's love interest most often goes by the name Beauty, not Belle.

Click any image below to be magically whisked away to the original source.

Given this history of diverse depictions, it will be fun to see how the Beast is depicted in Town & Gown's upcoming production. Will there be strong influences from the Disney movie? Will something new be added -- or perhaps something very old?

The best way to find out is to attend the show! It runs from Wednesday, June 5, through Saturday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m., and the Sunday matinee on June 9 starts at 2:30. That schedule repeats on June 12 through 16.

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