One of many combatants in the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571 was an itinerant Spaniard named Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Four years later, he sailed from Naples on a galley which was captured by Ottoman pirates, and was abducted to Algiers to be held for ransom. With him there was his brother Rodrigo, who was freed after two years, but their family couldn’t afford to pay the second ransom too. Miguel made four attempts to escape, but wasn’t liberated until 1580, by which time he’d lived in captivity for five years.
It’s not known when Cervantes first started work on writing one of the most famous and well-read books in any European language: El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, known more generally just as Don Quixote, which is the subject of my next series looking at paintings and illustrations of works of literature.
It has been widely thought that the first ideas Cervantes had for what became the first modern novel came to him when he was in prison. He certainly had ample opportunity: as well as being held in grim conditions in Algiers, he spent other periods in Spanish prisons. In 1592 he was jailed briefly for alleged fraud, and in 1597-98 he was back in prison again for discrepancies in his tax accounts, which followed his appointment as a tax collector in 1594. It was perhaps during that last confinement that he started to write the first book.
Mariano de la Roca y Delgado’s Miguel de Cervantes imagining El Quixote from 1858 expresses that visually.
Cervantes’ hero of the title is a hidalgo, not nobility, nor working class, but somewhere in a quietly distressed in-between. He loses himself in reading books telling swashbuckling yarns of chivalric romances, then loses distinction between their imaginary world and the real world around him.
The young painter Eugène Delacroix shows Don Quixote in his Library in his painting of 1824, with the transformation seen in Célestin Nanteuil’s undated Reading Don Quixote below.
This leads to a series of misadventures, of which the best-known has given rise to the English phrase tilting at windmills, meaning fighting an imaginary enemy, normally an act of great futility. This occurs when Don Quixote is out riding on his old and long-suffering horse Rosinante, with his servant and squire Sancho Panza, as shown by the great Polish narrative painter Jacek Malczewski.
When they see distant windmills, what they perceive is very different: to Don Quixote, they’re giants to be slain by him in his role as a knight, to Panza they’re just windmills. The results are comically disastrous.
Once again, for this series we can rely on Gustave Doré’s illustrations for a French translation of Don Quixote published in 1863, who shows the hero and his horse being dragged off the ground by the sails of one of the ‘giants’.
José Moreno Carbonero’s Don Quixote and the Windmills from about 1900 is still more explicit.
Ricardo Balaca’s illustration from 1880-1883 shows the consequences to the knight and his charger. Following this, Don Quixote and his squire have a post-mortem discussion which analyses the lessons of that misadventure, and move on to the next.
Like all great authors, Cervantes is an astute observer of the human condition, which underlies his writing. Don Quixote is about the blurred line between our often Quixotic aspirations, and the hard realities of life. Running through it all is a profound sense of humour: as we laugh at the absurd situations that Don Quixote gets himself into, so we must learn to laugh at our own mistakes, something Cervantes certainly had ample opportunity to practice himself.
Don Quixote is a thoroughly visual novel too, which draws on contemporary visual art, and feeds the imaginations of many painters from Diego Velázquez on. Telling its stories in paint has presented a special challenge which few other influential literary works have, how to depict the humour which runs throughout Cervantes’ writing. Among the most prolific and successful to paint Cervantes’ novel is Honoré Daumier.
No less than thirty of Daumier’s oil paintings show scenes from Don Quixote. Here Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come across a dead mule (Book I chapter 23) while crossing the Sierra Morena.
Cervantes describes the dead mule as still being in its full harness and saddle, which Daumier here omits. Quixote, much of Panza’s mount, and the dead mule are shown in sketched outlines, just sufficient by way of marks to enable their identification. There are no faces, and body language is minimal. As Daumier’s eyesight faded into complete blindness by 1873, his narratives were also supported by the most minimal painted marks.
Daumier’s slightly later painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from about 1868 shows a similarly faceless knight.
Nils Kreuger painted this wonderful portrait of Don Quixote’s Horse Rosinante in 1911.
In addition to a rich supply of paintings for this series, Doré’s illustrations are augmented by those of other artists, including William Hogarth, in this case how Don Quixote seizes the barber’s basin for Mambrino’s helmet.
At various times in my life from childhood on I’ve dipped into Don Quixote, read another chapter or three, and then been distracted. I hope that you will join me in the coming months as I work through it from cover to cover exploring its riches, humour, and many fine paintings. We could all do with a bit more Quixotic humour at present.