What you see: The Poisoned Apple, a study by Wanda Gág [pronounced ‘Gahg’] for an illustration in a 1938 edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.
The expert: Christine von der Linn, specialist in art books and original illustration at Swann Auction Galleries.
How did this Snow White book project come about? Was it a reaction to the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? It is, it absolutely is. 1937 was the Disney film. While it was popular and became an iconic film, the depiction of the witch frightened children. Because of that, one year later, Anne Carroll Moore, a writer, reviewer, and critic of children’s books and an advocate for children’s libraries, wanted to go back to the original Brothers Grimm and soften some of the elements that Disney portrayed.
How did the 1938 version achieve what Moore wanted? It keeps more of the folkloric charm of the original. You asked if the fact that Gág translated it herself, if it shaped the story–it did. Gág’s father was from Bohemia, and they moved to Minnesota. She grew up with those fairy tales and stories. She understood folklore and fairy tales, and she knew the language. She was able to translate it and come up with a more accurate version of the Brothers Grimm tale.
The study for The Poisoned Apple is far more elaborate than the same scene in the Disney movie. Can you talk about how Gág approached this scene, and how she chose certain details? In the original Grimm, the queen made four attempts to kill Snow White…
It sounds kind of like the Michael Palin character in A Fish Called Wanda trying to kill the old lady and accidentally killing her dogs instead. Exactly! Exactly. The queen tries her damnedest. She comes to the door as a corset peddler. The dwarfs told Snow White was told she was not supposed to answer the door to anyone. The queen puts her in a corset and ties her in so tightly that she passes out. The dwarfs find her and revive her. Next, she went as a comb vendor. The different attempts to disguise herself are discarded on the floor [the pile of masks and clothes at the left of the illustration]–the peddler didn’t work, the comb didn’t work. She gets her with the poisoned apple. Snow White was hesitant to take it. She had the good sense to be wary. The queen makes the apple half poison and half safe, and takes her bite out of the apple pulp side, the safe side. I love that Gág is showing the recipe, how she created the poisoned apple to give to her stepdaughter. It looks kind of delightful until you look at the elements and realize how dark they really are.
The late 1930s were a time when the notion of “better living through chemistry” wasn’t laughable. Nylon had been invented a few years earlier. Do you think that the positive view of chemical breakthroughs shaped how Gág approached this illustration? The Disney scene has the witch standing over the traditional cauldron, but this scene is half lab, half kitchen. It’s an interesting connection to make, but I’m not sure if I’d 100 percent go there. Domestic science came in the teens. By 1937 and 1938, it was established. You definitely have those elements to it.
How different is the study from the illustration that appears in the book? Not terribly. It takes you a while to realize the differences. The composition is almost identical. In the book version, she defines the elements more. The vapors coming off the apple look more like a corona. It’s interesting to see the subtleties of how she directs the eye.
I don’t have the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White in front of me, and I can’t recall it, but wouldn’t it have been harsher than the Disney version? It was. In the movie, the dwarfs dance around her and love Snow White. It’s symbiotic. In the book, they’re almost like little opportunists:”You can stay here and we will help keep you protected if you become our housekeeper.” They’re in the more classic tradition of dwarfs as mischievous and devious. They’re going to use her services. In the movie, when she falls under the spell, they put her in a glass coffin. In the book, the prince decides to take Snow White to a better resting place and attempts to move her to his castle, and one of his carriers trips. An act of clumsiness dislodges the apple from her throat and wakes her. She and the prince then decide to get married. In dark, grim fashion, the prince reveals to Snow White that the queen tried to murder her. They make the queen wear molten hot dance shoes and in a messed up Circus Maximus scene, they make her dance until she dies and they carry on with the rest of the wedding. Gág kept it. It’s still a violent image, but she kept it.
Is this the first piece of art from the Snow White book to come to auction? I didn’t find any others when I searched the Swann online archives. It is our first Snow White. Her other work does come up. She was a printmaker and a very skilled lithographer. The record-keeping for her work is really erratic. We seem to have the top price for a fine art work by her [an undated print, titled Outside Looking In, which sold in September 2008 for $6,480]. Skinner sold an ink on paper of a cat in a laundry basket in May 2016. That could be the top price for a Wanda Gág illustration.
Where are the rest of Gág’s illustrations for the Snow White book? The rest reside in the Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota. Minnesota is where she grew up. A couple of studies have entered the market. The provenance for this piece is it was acquired by a German rare book and manuscripts dealer, Walter Schatzki. He had them and then he sold them in the early 1970s to another dealer, Justin G. Schiller. It went from Schiller to the current owner. That’s one of the reasons why the price is higher. It’s her best-known work outside of Millions of Cats. It’s a crucial scene from the book, and you can’t acquire [the final illustration] because it’s in the Kerlan collection.
What are the odds that The Poisoned Apple will set a new record for Gág at auction? The estimate straddles the price of Outside Looking In. It might, it might. I’d like to see it set a record. We’re still celebrating the 80th anniversary of the movie and the publication of the book. It’s one of her most important and defining creations. And this is its first time at auction. With enough luck and enough bidders, we’ll see it set a new record.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? [Laughs] A couple of reasons. I like it because, in general, I love food and fairy tale images. For me, it’s a two-in-one. I’m the vice president of a local farmer’s market. I often deal with farmers and apples. I love any illustration that’s food- and fairy tale-based. I also like that it’s cartoon-like. The dark, thick lines lend that element to it.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
Christine von der Linn has appeared before on The Hot Bid, speaking about an Arthur Rackham illustration of Danaë and the Infant Perseus, a Rockwell Kent-illustrated edition of Moby Dick and original Erté artwork for a 1933 Harper’s Bazaar cover.
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