When an illustrator signs on to illustrate a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, I bet the scene they look forward to the most is depicting the gingerbread house. On the other hand, how to make it original?
CHARLES JAMES FOLKARD
OTTO KUBEL’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
Kubel added black witch’s cats, which should have alerted the children, really. The children are rosy cheeked and look pretty well-nourished to me. The witch isn’t immediately obvious. The eye is drawn to the children first, catching the ambient light. The witch is dressed in white, but remains standing in shadow. The house is small, closing around her, like the house itself will gobble you up. The foregrounded tree reminds us that we are in the forest.
Otto Kubel was a German painter and illustrator who lived from 1868 – 1951. He studied at the Dresden School of Applied Arts then worked uneventfully, it seems, as an artist and sometimes illustrator of children’s books.
He did live in various different places around Germany: In the early 1900’s Kubel went to live in Furstenfelbruck (a well-known artists colony — home of “Die Brucker Maler”). He then lived in Munchen where he basically stayed put, apart from the later part of the Second World War in which he stayed in Partenkirchen.
If you can read German, here’s some more about his illustration.
WANDA GAG’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
Wanda Gag had only black and white to work with. She surrounds the children with white so they don’t disappear by accident into the image. This makes it look as if light emanates from the children themselves. In most depictions of the gingerbread house, light seems to come from the house itself, or out of the surrounding trees. The witch has not yet appeared, but a black cat on teh stoop lies in wait.
See: Wanda Gag’s Americanization Of Grimms’ Fairy Tales a scholarly paper from Jack Zipes.
- Wanda Gag made the Grimms’ fairy tales popular in America during the 1930s and 1940s, which is when anti-German sentiment was on the rise.
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as produced by Disney in 1937, helped when it came to popularising these German tales across the Atlantic.
- Wanda Gag was born in 1893.
- She was the daughter of a ‘free-thinking painter’ with seven children who he couldn’t feed properly. This might explain partly why Gag felt so drawn to a tale which is ultimately about starving children? Her father died when she was only 15, too, in which case it’s possible she idolised him in the same way the tale idolises paternity (and vilifies maternity).
- Gag is most famous for her book Millions of Cats.
- She died in 1948, before she had finished the job she had set out to do, which was to translate and illustrate 50 of the Grimm tales.
KAY NIELSON’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE
These children look a bit thinner than many other depictions. The trees are absolutely huge. The foliage growing around the house has been affected by its magical aura and are therefore green when all the other trees are coloured in ochres. There’s a soft curviness to this illustration. The only hard angles are the windows and chimney. Light comes from the house, somehow.
Kay Nielsen was a so-called Golden Age illustrator from Denmark who lived from 1886-1957. (Despite the name Kay being largely a feminine name in the West, in Denmark it is a masculine name.) Like Wanda Gag, he came from a highly artistic family. In 1939 he moved to California and because he was a white man and also good at art, he secured a job working for Disney. Can you guess which movie he worked on, judging by his style?
Well, he did some concept paintings for The Little Mermaid. His work was used in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Fantasia. (Here’s the thing about that movie: It wasn’t actually produced until 1989. Nielsen died a long time before then.)
Walt Disney only employed him for four years. He had to return to Denmark, where he spent his final years. Unfortunately, trends had moved on, and Nielsen’s style of illustration was no longer in fashion.
This is a much more recent publication. I’ve covered it here. This text was written by Neil Gaiman, who crafted a less sexist version than the usual, giving Gretel more agency.
This one looks almost like a photo which has had a Photoshop filter put on it. Look closer and you immediately see it’s not, but there’s a weird, unsettling realism about it. The light comes clearly from the moon filtering through trees, though Mattotti has surrounded the children — or the shadows of the children — with white as Wanda Gag did. The layout is also similar to that by Wanda Gag, with the children coming in from the right to a house positioned centre left.
Rodeffer is an artist working today, in a style that harks back to the 1970s. This is a relatively symmetrical version of the gingerbread house. It doesn’t look all that much like food — it doesn’t make you want to lick the page, but the hints of sweets are there. (It would be hard to make this look tasty in this colour palette).
GINGERBREAD HOUSE BY FRANK ADAMS
The trees are foregrounded in this minimalist illustration. This is a forest with no life in it at all. There is a light source, coming from the bottom left. The house itself is almost in the centre of the layout… but not quite. These two aspects combined contribute to the uneasy, off-kilter atmosphere.
Edible houses predate Hansel and Gretel. “The Land of Cockayne” is a poem included in a 14th century manuscript, Kildare Poems. This is Ireland’s earliest known literary text in (Middle) English. This particular poem is a satirical piece about a corrupt community of monks, who lead a life of fantastic luxury and dissipation in the mythical land of Cockaigne.
The gingerbread probably didn’t come into this German tale until its English translation.
- Schwankmärchen (Farcical tales) of Schlaraffenland (German): delicatessan products are on the roof
- Fabel de Cocaigne (French): fish, bacon, and sausages are on the roof
- Navicula sive speculum fatuorum by Geiler von Kaisersberg: Pfannkuchen (pancakes) on the roof
- The poem “Das Schlauraffenland” (1530) by Hans Sachens: Fladen (pancakes]) on the roof
- Wrozki by Podworzecki (1589) (Polish): sides of bacon and dumplings etc.
- Hänsel und Gretel: the witch’s house is built from bread, covered in cakes and the windows are made of clear sugar. (The text of Hänsel und Gretel is from various tellings from Hessen. Told by Henriette Dorothea Wild, 1793 – 1867).
Note: the house is made of bread, the roof is decked with cake and the windows were made of clear sugar (hellem Zucker). “Gingerbread” probably came from an English translation.