The earliest Ulysses illustration rediscovered?
If you search online “what did Leopold Bloom look like?” you’ll immediately find the sketch above made by James Joyce in Paris in 1926. Joyce was recovering from one of his many eye operations, and the sketch is rough to say the least, but in a few smudges Joyce drew out Bloom’s essential hat and moustache. Joyce had earlier told Sylvia Beach that Bloom resembled the English journalist and bibliophile Holbrook Jackson (who sported unruly hair and an unmistakeable moustache) but Joyce’s sketch has been universally considered Bloom’s earliest representation. It is preserved at the McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University (IL).
We have recently come across a published illustration bearing a date at its bottom right-hand corner ― 1925 ― which is likely to be not only the earliest surviving depiction of Bloom but also the earliest published illustration for Ulysses. It is by a remarkable Austrian-born artist Mariette Lydis (1887-1970), whose career encompassed Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Winchcombe (briefly) and Buenos Aires. Her illustration, which accompanies a French translation from Ulysses published in the Italian journal “900” in 1926, has been entirely overlooked by Joyce scholars until now. It shows a crumpled everyman figure, with black hat and moustache and accompanies the ‘Calypso’ episode in which we are introduced to Bloom (and his enthusiasm for kidneys). Its original has not been traced.
Ulysses has been peculiarly resistant to illustration. Its first illustrated edition of 1935 included etchings by Matisse, but his stylish illustrations have more to do with the classical Ulysses and certainly don’t show Bloom. Matisse probably never even read Joyce’s novel. British pop artist Richard Hamilton pursued a long quest to illustrate the novel over several decades from 1948 but the project was left unfulfilled. More recently John Vernon Lord has published one of the only complete sequences of Ulysses illustrations, for the acclaimed Folio Society edition of 2017.
With such a dearth of iconography for such an iconic literary figure it seems extraordinary that Mariette Lydis’s illustration has so completely eluded study by Joyce scholars. It’s a complicated image ― what are we to make of the background details (a brazier, a spider’s web and holiday posters for the Dutch resort of Ostend) which don’t bear much relation to Ulysses? One might object that it’s just any crumpled man in a black hat, except that it has been placed so deliberately with the Ulysses text in “900” (a journal of which Joyce was, at least nominally, a joint editor). It is clearly labelled ‘Illustration’, where the other images in the journal by other artists are simply described by their media (‘dessin’) and bear little relation to the texts. Somehow then, this image stands for Bloom and is almost certainly the first to do so.
There was clearly a connection in the mid-twenties between artist and author, via the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli, who was then Lydis’s lover and editor of “900”. Whether they had met before 1925 is probably not known, though a pencil portrait of Joyce made by Lydis in Paris is dated 1926. There is a story here to be uncovered. What influence, if any, did Joyce have over Mariette Lydis’s Bloom? Had she read the episode? Perhaps more interestingly, what influence did her illustration have on Joyce’s own conception of his character and on future interpretations? It has even been pointed out that Joyce’s partially-sighted scrawl of 1926 is merely a bad copy of Lydis.
There is clearly much more to say about the prospect of this ‘new’ iconography for Bloom ― already nearly 100 years old.