Introduction by Richard Murray
From the moment of its publication, Elihu Vedder's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám achieved unparalleled success. The first edition appeared in Boston on 8 November 1884; six days later, it was sold out. Critics rushed to acclaim it as a masterwork of American art, and Vedder (1836 - 1923) as the master American artist.
Vedder's Rubáiyát set the standard for the artist-designed book in America and England. Vedder created designs for the entire book -- its cover and lining paper, its compelling drawings, and its eccentric hand-drawn letters. A new photographic printing process translated the subtle gradations of the drawings to the printed page. Initially, the book was issued in two formats: a large-size, limited deluxe edition with a stamped leather cover for one hundred dollars, and a regular edition with a printed cover and typeface text for twenty-five dollars. Many later editions of the book were smaller and reproduced Vedder's drawings and text using the half-tone screen process.
The rubáiyát (the plural form of quatrain, or a verse unit of four lines) were written around 1120 by the Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet Omar Khayyám. He left upwards of 1,000 epigrams on the transience of existence and the uselessness of mathematics, science, or religion to untangle the knotted meaning of life. In the mid-nineteenth century the English aesthete Edward FitzGerald (1809 - 1883) translated 101 quatrains from various Persian manuscripts of the rubáiyát. The result was one of the most notable of English poems, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Although FitzGerald's first edition of the Rubáiyát, which appeared anonymously in 1859, was a commercial failure, the cut-rate remainders became talismans for young Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and aesthetic-movement writers including Algernon Swinburne. In England and America, the slim volume was handed from artist to artist, and it served as a touchstone for the spiritual and poetic in a time of strident materialism.
Elihu Vedder was among the artists who became ardent admirers of the verses. He was known as a "visionary" artist who had no peer in depicting unusual, esoteric subjects. Living in Rome, he was removed from the bustling, modish art scene in New York, and his work took on a peculiar, antiquarian aura that complemented the rubáiyát. Commenting on the combination of his work with FitzGerald's and Khayyám's, Vedder remarked: "Certainly three kindred spirits have here encountered each other; and although the first two missed each other on earth by eight centuries and the last two by twelve months, still in the heart of the survivor lingers the hope that in the life 'sans end' they may all yet meet."
Vedder's interest soon went beyond the aesthetic to the personal. In 1872, his infant son Sandro died, and the following year his daughter Anita was born. His first-born son, Philip, died in 1875, the same year his son Enoch was born. These tragic deaths and concurrent births were remarkably explained, it seemed to him, by Omar's message of undiscoverable fate, death, and renewal of life. As Vedder recalled, "Thus was the seed of Omar planted in a soil peculiarly adapted to its growth, and it grew and took to itself all of sorrow and of mirth that it could assimilate, and blossomed out into the drawings." Vedder placed himself and his family in the "accompaniments" (he refused to call his drawings illustrations). They appear in Death's Review, at the lower right in the procession of souls, and Vedder's own hands are depicted attempting to grasp the meaning of the tangled skein of life in Pardon Giving and Pardon Imploring Hands. In Omar's Emblem, a singing nightingale, symbolizing life, is poised upon a skull, symbolizing death, and transience is indicated by fallen rose petals that float on the cosmic swirl. The image is as much Vedder's emblem as it is Omar's.