Macabre art by Robert W. Chambers, the author of The King in Yellow
Chambers, Robert W[illiam] (1865-1933). The Pallid Mask, ca. 1895. Original gouache illustration in black and gray, signed 35 x 25 cm. Grotesque doodles in pencil to the margin. Small loss, not affecting image and somewhat dusty. Unframed.
Executed in black and gray and highlighted in white, this untitled work by Chambers depicts an armed, greaved and gauntleted figure in a tattered robe whose pale, pulpy face is turned toward a barred window. While not necessarily directly related to The King in Yellow, the illustration has resonances with that classic work of supernatural fiction, and particularly, we think, with the powerful and terrifying figure in the Pallid Mask.
The Pallid Mask, associated with “Death and the awful abode of lost souls," appears first in the story, “The Repairer of Reputations”:
I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask.
It resurfaces as a reference in “The Mask,” which opens with a quote from The King in Yellow, a play that drives its readers mad:
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.
In “The Yellow Sign,” a horrible figure with a pale, puffy face lurks in the churchyard:
As I turned, my listless glance included the man below in the churchyard. His face was toward me now, and with a perfectly involuntary movement I bent to see it. At the same moment he raised his head and looked at me. Instantly I thought of a coffin-worm. Whatever it was about the man that repelled me I did not know, but the impression of a plump white grave-worm was so intense and nauseating that I must have shown it in my expression, for he turned his puffy face away with a movement which made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.
An organist with an “anaemic complexion,” whose “face was as white as his coat was black” haunts the narrator of “In the Court of the Dragon”:
I looked at him: I could not look away from his black figure and his white face. When he was exactly opposite to me, he turned and sent across the church straight into my eyes, a look of hate, intense and deadly: I have never seen any other like it; would to God I might never see it again!
And in “The Green Room,” the pallid figure is clearly identified:
The Clown turned his powdered face to the mirror.
"If to be fair is to be beautiful," he said, "who can compare with me in my white mask?"
"Who can compare with him in his white mask?" I asked of Death beside me.
"Who can compare with me?" said Death, "for I am paler still."
"You are very beautiful," sighed the Clown, turning his powdered face from the mirror.
Painted during the same period that Chambers was writing the stories in The King in Yellow this work appears to be less of a direct illustration of any of the tales than a complement to them; another manifestation of the Pallid Mask.
Chambers’ formal training was in the field of art rather than literature. He entered the Arts Students’ League in New York, studying alongside Charles Dana Gibson, and continued his training at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julien in Paris. The Salon accepted his paintings when he was only twenty-four. Returning to New York in 1893, he worked as an illustrator for Life, Vogue, Truth, Godey's and other periodicals (see below for some examples). Finding success as a writer, he continued to contribute occasional illustrations to periodicals through the 1920s. None, however, is so striking and evocative as this haunting piece.
Provenance: L. W. Currey (Catalogue 39); ex-coll. Stuart David Schiff.
Some other illustration art by Robert W. Chambers
Illustration for "Loyal Foes," Godey's Magazine, April 1894, p. 397.
Illustration for "Loyal Foes," Godey's Magazine, April 1894, p. 408.