In general, fantasy art is the depiction of things that exist only in the imagination, it is defined by subject matter rather than by style or technique. While artists with similar styles are common, a wide variety of mediums and styles have been used across a vast period of time. The primary subjects that define fantasy art are legendary or composite animals and figures from religion, mythology, and literature. Sometimes dream imagery is included.
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These subjects have been explored throughout the history of art. In fact, some the earliest known artwork in existence includes the prehistoric depictions (cave paintings) of hybrid beasts such as bison-headed humanoids, a composite human with antlers (the sorcerer), a four-fingered bird-man, and other mystical subjects. Many cave art experts believe these images represent the shamanic transformation of humans into animals.
Human hybrids can also be observed in ancient Assyrian works portraying half-man half-fish gods (the first mermaids), as well as winged figures (early angels), winged dragons, winged bulls and other creatures also appear.
The Ancient Egyptian pantheon is filled with animal-headed deities such as Bastet, a cat-headed woman; Khepri, a man with the head of a scarab beetle; Sobek, a man with the head of a crocodile; and Tawaret who appeared as a lion with the torso of a pregnant woman, the head of a hippopotamus, and the tail of a crocodile.
One of the largest sources of inspiration for fantasy art (as well as art and literature in general) is Greek religion and mythology. Greek representations of figures from mythology has had a huge influence on later interpretations of subjects commonly found in fantasy art including unicorns, pegasi, sirens, sphinxes, griffins, and a countless number of other monsters, hybrids, heroes, and gods.
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The majority of the previously mentioned works are religious or spiritual in nature. Gradually, these and similar subjects began to be portrayed as mythological, supernatural, or magical rather than religious.
Around 1500, the works in classical art that have had the heaviest influence on today's artists began to appear, slowly at first, rapidly later.
Hieronymus Bosch, an artist ahead of his time, created the well known and fantastic painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, (c. 1500). This image depicts three scenes, the first panel represents the creation of Adam and Eve, the fountain of life, and original sin. The second panel represents the sinful pleasures of life, and the third panel represents the consequences of a sinful life - eternal damnation.
Later, influenced by Bosch, Pieter Bruegel created images such as Mad Meg (c. 1562), a woman looting outside the mouth of Hell wearing an apron and battle-attire; Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), Saint Michael doing battle with a strange enchanting mass of insect, fish, and reptile-like creatures; and The Triumph of Death (c. 1562), a breathtaking work of art depicting a smoldering landscape filled with hordes of skeleton-soldiers attacking and killing the living indiscriminately. There is no suggestion of salvation or an afterlife in this image, it portrays only death and the fact that it conquers us all in the end.
Around 1770, images such as Titania and Bottom, a fairy painting by Henry Fuseli and Ghost of a Flea, a monstrous vision created by William Blake began to appear. Works of art like these inspired future artists to create a great number fairy and fantasy themed paintings during the Victorian era in Great Britain. They explored the imagination and the spiritual realm not only in paintings but in literature, poems, theater, seances and more. The popularity of such explorations reached its peak around 1840.
After 1900, the obsession with other-worldly ideas and images began to fade but interest was never really lost. Fantasy subjects continue to be wildly popular to the present day with artists such as Brian Froud, Michael Whelan, Frank Frazetta, and others. Scroll down to see a list of notable contemporary fantasy artists with links to websites where their work can be viewed.
Browse this list of popular subjects often used in this genre to find more specific information and images.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors
See also: Lowbrow / Pop Surrealism
The Fantastic in Art and Fiction
An online presentation created by the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections using images from the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, includes pictures of demons, angels, weird science, possession, insanity, freaks, monsters, and more.
The American Museum of Natural History presents Mythic Creatures, an online exhibit that explores the origins of dragons, sea monsters, mermaids, unicorns and others. Mini-galleries and in-depth information is included in each category.
Fairy Tales In Images
An online exhibition of fairy tale and fantasy images presented by the National Library of France, includes book illustrations, paintings, and engravings by artists such as Edmund Dulac, Gustave Dore, Arthur Rackham, and others.
Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travels on Paper 1450–1700
Includes a small selection of images and a brief introduction to Biblical, allegorical, and fantasy travel, an exhibition feature from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fantasy creatures of mythology in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
British Museum: Imaginary Beasts
Information about fantastic beasts including sphinxes, dragons, and sea monsters with images of objects in the collections of the British Museum.
Rijksmuseum: Fantasy Creatures
View images of objects related to fantasy creatures in the online collections of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
LACMA: Imaginary Animals and Birds
View around 96 objects related to imaginary animals in the online collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Monsters, Fairies, and Legendary Creatures
Extraordinary creatures in Persian folklore, part of an in-depth study of 16th and 17th century Persian painting from the Louvre Museum.
A collection of over 360 images in the WorldImages database from the California State University IMAGE Project.
British Library: Monsters and Myths
View a small collection of images in the British Library featuring dragons, a sea monster, a centaur, and related fantasy beasts.
Notable Artists Specializing in Fantasy Art (see links above for more specific genres)
Julie Bell & Boris Vallejo
Oil paintings of maidens, monsters, and superheroes, also album covers, video box art, comic book art and more.
Kinuko Y. Craft
Fairytale paintings, book covers, posters, and illustrations for national magazines.
Romantic fantasy paintings, book covers, Dungeons & Dragons cover art, and images from Guardians, the collectable card game.
Dark fantasy, science fiction, and dinosaurs.
Conceptual, realist, science fiction and fantasy art.
Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Paintings of fairies, angels and other creatures, plus book and magazine covers, sketches, Shadowscapes Tarot, and zodiac images.
Science fiction and fantasy prints and book covers featuring creatures, environments, hardware, figurative and conceptual art.
Website of author and illustrator James Gurney, includes a selection of works and information from the Dinotopia books.
Science fiction and fantasy illustration and design including works featured on books, posers, album covers, calendars, video games and film.
Science fiction landscapes, robots, horror and related images.
Includes images created for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic, books, magazines, and concept art.
Art and information from the Gnemo book, The Three Musketeers, plus older bookcovers and projects.
Prints and illustrations for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other book covers plus sketches, movie and film design work, and related information.
Fantasy and science fiction illustration including cover art for contemporary writers.
Vincent Di Fate
Science fiction, fantasy, and aerospace illustration.
John Jude Palencar
Paintings, drawings, and illustrations including cover art for Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Science fiction and fantasy illustration, sculpture, 3D animation, digital work, concept art, and design development.
Images for film and tv, Mechwarrior covers, Life Size Dragons, Eragon Picture Book, and paintings.
Science fiction and fantasy illustration that has appeared on calendars, book covers, magazines and trading cards.
Includes art, production pieces, news and photos.
Oil paintings, album cover art, books, and toys.
Michael William Kaluta
Artist with images appearing on calendars, comics, book covers, album covers, and collectible card games.
Fantasy and science fiction artist who created work for Dungeons and Dragons, Everquest, and Dragonlance.
References & Suggested Reading
Bahn, Paul G., & Vertut, Jean. Journey Through the Ice Age. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
Whibley, Leonard. (ed.). A Companion to Greek Studies. London: Cambridge University Press, 1905.
Silver, Larry. Hieronymus Bosch. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2006.
Image Credits (in order of appearance)
Moreau, Gustave. (1826 - 1898). Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864. Oil on canvas, 206.4 × 104.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Blake, William. (1757 - 1827). The Ancient of Days, 1794. Relief etching with watercolor, 23.3 x 16.8 cm. British Museum, London.
De Morgan, Evelyn. (c. 1850 - 1919). The Field of the Slain, 1916. Oil on canvas.
Repin, Ilya. Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom, 1876. Oil on canvas, 323 × 230 cm. The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
Moreau, Gustave. (1826 - 1898). Fairy with Griffons, c. 1880s. Watercolor and pencil on paper. Musee Gustave Moreau, Paris.
Redon, Odilon. (1840 - 1916). The Cyclops, c. 1914. Oil on cardboard mounted on panel. Kroller-Muller Museum.
Dore, Gustave. (1832 - 1883). Andromeda, 1869. Oil on canvas, 172.7 × 256.5 cm. Private collection.
Benlliure, Joseph Gil. (1855 - 1937). La Barca de Caronte (The Barque of Charon), 1919. Oil on canvas, 103 x 176 cm. Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, Spain.
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