Compartmented frontispiece showing views of the natural landscape of Mauritius Island and a title with hand-drawn letters, all framed and surrounded with lush ornamental vegetation among which animals such as birds, monkeys, and snakes can be seen foraging and frolicking about.
Curmer’s Paul et Virginie is widely regarded as a highlight of the illustrated book production in the French Romantic era. First issued as a series of thirty installments, starting in 1836, it was released in 1838 as a single volume, sold for 45 francs(1).
Although embellished with approximately five hundred illustrations drawn by renowned, or soon-to-be renowned artists and carefully crafted in every way, its initial success started to wane after the first year. Out of the original 10,000 print run, 4,000 copies were left unsold by 1845, the year Curmer went bankrupt, and it wouldn’t sell out until 1848. By then, the expenses incurred amounted to 233,000 fr. and the profit to 82,000 fr.
In 1849, Léon Curmer looked back, not without some complacency, on his work on this epochal book and penned an extended note on the end papers of his freshly bound personal copy. Below is an excerpt from this note:
Here you are at last, my dear book, dressed up according to my wishes. I’ve been dreaming for ten years that this glory would be granted to you, and after ten years of hardship and work, of joy too, I have reached my goal. […]
Thanks to you, my dear book, I studied typography and was fortunate enough to somewhat improve on it, when one could have thought it had reached the limits of perfection. I lead a new way for papermaking. I made a revolution in working with printing inks, wood engraving had never before gone as far as it has with this book(2)…
Following this note, he detailed the costs involved in the making of this edition (prices are expressed in French francs of the time):
|Drawings on wood||28,623.95|
|Pasting of wood engravings and paper||3,650.00|
- ^ As a broad approximation, 1 French franc in 1830/40 amounted to 3.15 USD or 3 euros in 2018.
- ^ Bibliographie des ouvrages illustrés du XIXe siècle, by Jules Brivois, Paris: P. Rouquette, 1883. Translation ours.