David Hockney's Illustrations for Brothers Grimm

David Hockney’s Inside The Castle. An intaglio print of a man wearing a black coat and hat with his arms raised, trying to scare the man seated in front of him. Inside The Castle © David Hockney 1969
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David Hockney

David Hockney

631 works

What exactly would Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin have in common in modern art? David Hockney answers this with his enchanting series of etchings, reimagining the timeless tales of the Brothers Grimm. Through his minimalist yet expressive style, Hockney breathes new life into these classic stories, transforming them into contemporary masterpieces. Each illustration, from the leaping black cat to the solitary tower window, invites viewers into a fantasy world where the lines between reality and folklore blur. Hockney’s Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm not only celebrate the rich heritage of these stories but also demonstrate his mastery of printmaking and vivid imagination.

Hockney’s Modern Approach to the Brothers Grimm

Created over three years and published in 1969, these etchings showcase Hockney's ability to blend playful creativity with technical prowess. The series reflects a departure from his earlier, more photographic naturalism, embracing a minimalist approach characterised by mostly blank backgrounds. This stylistic choice allowed Hockney to experiment with techniques such as soft ground etching and aquatint, enabling him to achieve intricate textures and shading that add depth and dimension to his works.

Hockney's fascination with the Brothers Grimm's tales, which he enjoyed since childhood, is evident in his thoughtful selection and interpretation of the stories. The six chosen tales, from Rapunzel to Rumpelstiltskin, are brought to life with a distinct blend of simplicity and complexity. Through extensive printmaking techniques, Hockney references artistic influences from the past, infusing his illustrations with a timeless quality. This series not only highlights Hockney's versatility but also his ability to reinterpret traditional narratives, offering fresh, modern perspectives on classic folklore.

"They're fascinating, the little stories, told in a very very simple, direct, straightforward language and style, it was this simplicity that attracted me. They cover quite a strange range of experience, from the magical to the moral."
David Hockney

The Brothers Grimm: Cultural Revival Through Folklore

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, were 19th-century German scholars best known for their collection of fairy tales. Among the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, Germany grappled with questions of identity and nationhood. Jacob and Wilhelm sought to reclaim and celebrate the culture of Germanic folklore as a means of fostering national unity and pride. Their meticulous approach to collecting and recording tales set a new standard for folklore scholarship, laying the groundwork for the field of comparative mythology.

Their work, published in two volumes in 1812 and 1815, sought to preserve the oral traditions and folklore of Germany. The Grimm fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White, are characterised by their dark themes, moral lessons, and vivid imagery, reflecting the cultural and societal values of their time. These tales have been translated into numerous languages and have become a staple of Western literature, influencing countless adaptations in various media.

Hockney found a connection with the Grimm brothers' stories. His fascination with folklore and its narrative depth drew him to these tales, prompting him to explore their visual potential. Hockney’s artistic vision is largely rooted in storytelling, and the Grimm fairy tales provided a foundation of themes and imagery for him to reinterpret.

Hockney's decision to illustrate the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales was influenced by his broader interest in literature and narrative art. The choice to engage with these specific tales allowed Hockney to delve into the symbolic and psychological layers of folklore, using his art to recontextualise the stories. The fairy tales' blend of fantasy and macabre resonated with Hockney's approach, drawing on the themes of transformation, morality, and survival.

Hockney’s Illustrative Techniques

Hockney’s mastery of printmaking techniques is showcased in his illustrations for the Brothers Grimm, where he skillfully employs etching, aquatint, and drypoint to create compelling compositions. These methods allow Hockney to explore a variety of textures and tones, enhancing the evocative quality of his illustrations.


Etching involves using acid to carve lines into a metal plate, creating grooves that hold ink. Hockney’s etchings display a remarkable range of line qualities, from delicate, fine lines to bold, sweeping strokes, contributing to the dynamic and textured appearance of his works. This technique is evident in the intricate details and varied line weights that bring his illustrations to life.


Aquatint is used to produce areas of tone and shading, complementing the line work of etching. By applying a powdered resin to the plate, Hockney creates a porous surface that can hold varying amounts of ink. This process allows him to introduce subtle gradations of light and shadow, adding depth and volume to the compositions. The integration of aquatint in Hockney’s illustrations enhances the narrative quality by providing atmospheric effects that evoke the mystical and eerie elements of the Grimm tales.


Drypoint is another technique Hockney utilises, involving directly scratching the image onto the plate with a hard-pointed needle. The combination of drypoint with etching and aquatint allows Hockney to achieve a textural richness and a sense of immediacy in his illustrations.

Hockney’s use of these techniques is both sophisticated and expressive, contributing to the overall impact of his Grimm illustrations. His lines vary in weight and density, creating a sense of movement and depth within the scenes. The textures achieved through etching, aquatint, and drypoint add a tactile quality to the illustrations, enhancing their visual and emotional impact. The compositions are thoughtfully arranged, guiding the viewer’s eye through key details that emphasise the fairy tales’ whimsical and sometimes dark nature.

Hockney’s Illustrations for Rumpelstiltskin

Hockney’s illustrations for the Brothers Grimm’s tale Rumpelstiltskin capture the narrative's intricate blend of mystery, fantasy, and moral lessons through a series of etchings that showcase his innovative artistic vision. Each piece in this series contributes uniquely to the storytelling, offering deeper insights into the characters and themes.

In Gold, the first illustration for the story, Hockney depicts the transformation of straw into gold. This piece sets the stage for the magical and surreal events that follow. The etching shows straw falling and transforming into glistening gold, capturing the wonder and impossibility of the task.

Pleading For The Child continues the series, where Rumpelstiltskin demands the miller’s daughter’s first-born child as repayment. Hockney’s depiction of Rumpelstiltskin, an odd, hairy little figure, reflects his complex character. Although initially menacing, Rumpelstiltskin ultimately shows a hint of kindness by giving the baby back. This nuanced portrayal is inspired by a 1961 etching and further influenced by Vittore Carpaccio’s Two Venetian Ladies On A Terrace.

Riding Around On A Cooking Spoon is another striking example from the tale, depicting Rumpelstiltskin dancing joyfully around a fire on a cooking spoon while singing his name. Hockney’s inventive portrayal captures the essence of the character’s mischievous nature. The use of vibrant lines and dynamic composition imbues the scene with a sense of movement and liveliness, reflecting the fantastical elements of the story. This depiction not only highlights Hockney’s playful approach but also his ability to express the underlying themes of cunning and trickery central to the tale.

Finally, He Tore Himself In Two is the final illustration, capturing the dramatic conclusion of the tale. Hockney unveils a sequence where Rumpelstiltskin, in a fit of rage, pulls himself apart. The abstract nature of this etching, with disjointed features like floating lips and an eye, emphasises the grotesque elements of the story. This piece captures the surreal and often dark resolution of Grimm's fairy tales, ending the series on a visually striking and thematically rich note.

Through these illustrations, Hockney not only retells the Grimm tale but also adds layers of interpretation, inviting viewers to explore the deeper meanings and emotional complexities within the story. His work bridges traditional narratives with contemporary artistic expression, highlighting the timeless relevance of these fairy tales.

The Legacy of Hockney’s Grimm Illustrations

Critically acclaimed upon their release, these works were celebrated for their innovative approach and technical mastery. Hockney’s ability to reinterpret the Grimm stories through a contemporary lens has been pivotal in renewing interest in these narratives, showcasing their timeless relevance.

"What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing. You wouldn't be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought."
David Hockney

Critics have praised the series for its minimalist yet expressive style, which contrasts with the more elaborate depictions commonly associated with fairy tales. This simplicity allows viewers to focus on the core elements of the stories, drawing out the psychological and moral complexities that lie beneath their surface. Hockney’s use of techniques such as cross-hatching, aquatint, and soft ground etching has been noted for its ability to create depth and texture, enhancing the emotional impact of each piece.

These illustrations have significantly contributed to contemporary understandings of the Brothers Grimm tales. By stripping down the visual elements to their essentials, Hockney provides a fresh perspective that emphasises the universal themes of these stories. His interpretations encourage viewers to engage with the narratives on a deeper level, considering the characters’ motivations and the moral lessons inherent in the tales. Through these works, Hockney has not only honoured the legacy of the Brothers Grimm but also broadened the scope of illustration.

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