Between Faith & Doubt: Subjects for Meditation
by Jane Dillenberger

Excerpted from Perceptions and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder

. . . . It was the Elihu Vedder's introduction to The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, however, which served as a catalyst for a more complex and fateful vision. Since the drawings for the Rubáiyát, published with the Edward FitzGerald text by Houghton Mifflin in 1884, [1] catapulted Vedder into fame and gave him some financial ease for a time, it was natural for his friends and the world to wonder about the circumstances surrounding the commission. Obligingly, in his Digressions of V. he gave an account of what, as he said, all his friends were "longing to know...the when and the where and the why and the how" of the making of his drawings for the Rubáiyát. [2] Looking back on that period of his life, specifically to the summer of 1871, Vedder wrote:

We were living in Perugia when my friend Ellis brought me Omar and introduced him as only Ellis could. Ellis was a man who could read Chaucer, not only so that you understood him, but he converted him into a musical flow of melody.... Now this was so far back that it was in the time when Omar, or FitzGerald was only known to Tennyson and his friends as 'Old Fitz' and to a few besides. But in the little Villa Uffreduzi, late in the afternoon, when the sun had gone off the house, in the grateful shade, out of an Etruscan cup, many were the libations of good wine poured on the thirsty earth, to go below and quench the fire of anguish in old Omar's eyes. Thus was the seed of Omar planted in a soil peculiarly adapted to its own growth, and it grew and took to itself all of sorrow and of mirth that it could assimilate, and blossomed out of the drawings. [3],

Immediately, Vedder goes on to tell of the death of his two sons, particularily of Philip who, he says, succeeded in "twining himself about my heart with tendrils nevermore to be relaxed." The death of Philip was associated for Vedder both with the end of his paintings of "dances and picnics-and girls weaving golden nets" and with the eventual development of the Rubáiyát drawings.

From the 1870s until his death, FitzGerald's Omar was Vedder's constant companion, a presence that fed his imagination. Just when Vedder conceived of the idea for the Rubáiyát illustrations, however, is not clear. In an unpublished preface intended for the Rubáiyát, Vedder wrote that he had intended illustrating some of the quatrains many years before he made arrangements with Houghton Mifflin and Company, on a visit to the United States in 1883, to bring out the profusely illustrated volume. [4] He began work on the drawings as soon as the agreement was reached, even before leaving New York in April, and worked on them steadily until March 1884. "I have planned the whole thing, page by page," he wrote in June from Rome to Joseph B. Millet of Houghton Mifflin.

I do not intend the drawings to be clear illustrations of the text-except when they naturally happen to be so-they are an accompaniment to the verses, parallel but not identical in thought...I fear there are more than 50 designs. The prospect is somewhat formidable but, is a poem so much in harmony with my thought, that it is suggestion on endless designs...My studio is situated in a Villa where it is easy to imagine 'some buried Caesar bled,' and all things conspire to enable me to do justice to the poem. [5]