Imagine being an artist commissioned to illustrate the entire Bible. From the epic stories to the pithy proverbs, from psalms of praise to prophets of doom, from the life of Jesus to his parables, you were supposed to produce pictures for everything. Now imagine that you were limited to the most minimal of visual means for representing all those stories: stick figures. You’d be doomed to producing a forgettable set of doodles. A real why-bother heap of lines, right?
But back in the 1960s, Swiss artist Annie Vallotton took up that task and gave us a memorable body of work. I’m talking about the roughly 500 illustrations that have always accompanied the Good News Bible. They are instantly recognizable. They have made an impression on people who can’t remember what translation they belonged with, and who certainly couldn’t tell you the name of the artist behind them.
A few years ago, HarperCollins calculated, and the BBC duly reported, that Annie Vallotton was the best-selling artist of all time. Since her work had gone out with every copy of that ubiquitous Good News Bible, it was a simple matter of numbers: 500 pictures times 140 million copies equals about 70 billion Vallotton illustrations. That’s sort of an inflationary way of handling the numbers, of course –count every copy of each image, and I’m sure there are multiplied billions of Garfields and Marmadukes at large as well– but the point is that Vallotton’s pictures have had wide circulation.
And more to the point, they are good. They’re good as line art, and they’re good as Bible illustrations. You can see little thumbnails of all the illustrations online, but here are a few that show off her strengths as an illustrator. The wise but sad king of Ecclesiastes (left) is a perfect example of an image that doesn’t get in the way or distract the reader, but also presents a lot more to look at than just a sad face. The figure presented here is pensive. His head is placed just low enough on his shoulders, his hands have just the right amount of tension, and the fold of his robes fall in that brilliant melting-Z line. Any more would be less; less here is more.
Vallotton mostly avoids drawing vast, panoramic scenes. She doesn’t draw God, and she rarely chooses to start a book with any sort of overall establishing shot. Again, that would draw too much attention. Instead, the illustrations sneak in. When she does go for a larger vision, the scenes are often symbolic. Here, for example, is a larger than average landscape from Ezekiel 6: