The Tale of Tsar Saltan

(Skazka o Tsare Saltane)


Tale of Tsar Saltan is one of the most known fairy tales from Russian foklore. It inspired many artists, who created books,  poems, illustrations, paintings, music and stage projects based on Tsar Saltan and other characters from this classic Russian fairy tale.

tsar saltan is listening at the doorprincess swan as the magical helper

The Tale of the Tsar Saltan is sometimes also titled The Princess Swan, but we should not confuse it with The Swan Princess, successful movie based on the even more popular ballet The Swan Lake (which, by the way, is also partially based on Russian folk tales). It’s probably the best to provide some kind of …

Short summary of Tale of Tsar Saltan

In general we have two versions.

First was written in 19th century when dozens of scholars in Europe started to collect old stories, fables, fairy tales, legends and just about everything what might help to preserve cultural heritage in fast paced developing society where new norms were replacing traditions without much thought if everything old is really so bad to deserve being forgotten. The most famous collection of those times is of course known as Fairy Tales by brothers Grimm.

The second, and today more known version of the Tale of Tsar Saltan was written in 1831 by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837).

The basic plot is the same:

1. We have three sisters and Tsar Saltan who by accident hears what the talk about him. He marries the youngest and elder two are jealous at her.

2. When the youngest sister gives birth to kids, her sisters (or their helpers, depending on version) replaced them with puppies and with some additional scheming the young queen is sealed in a barrel together with her youngest son and thrown in the ocean.

3. The barrel strands on the shoe of uninhabited island and both survivors (with some magic help, which again differs in various versions) manage to build beautiful palace with complete infrastructure.

4. Traveling merchants see the palace, beautiful Queen Marfa and Prince Guidon, and tell about the miraculous happenings on the formerly uninhabited island to the Tsar Saltan.

5. Despite some additional obstacles (and more magic) he visits the island and finally finds the truth. All the lost sons are returned and we have a classic happy ending.

Let’s start our visual exploring with illustrations by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942), who made next set of illustrations for books (this fairy tale was published in different versions and on different occasions). You’ll recognize all the main scenes starting with a king listening at the doors right to the happy ending.

fairy tale tsar saltan pushkin cover

alexanderpushkin tsar saltan by ivan bilibin

king is listening at the door

king saltan marries queen marfa

queen and prince in the barrel

queen and prince on the island

merchants at the king

fly of the mosquito

at tsar saltan

prince guidon and princess swan

princess swan by ivan bilibin

Bilibin also made scenery for the opera in four acts (plus prologue) and they are presented below together with a poster. Opera was written by Rimsky-Korsakov at Pushkin’s centenary (1899) and premiered in 1900.

poster opera tsar saltan

scene for the opera of the tale tsar saltan by ivan bilibin

ivan bilibin scene opera tale of tsar saltan

tsar saltan costume by ivan bilbibin

opera costume by ivan bilibin tale of tsar saltan

queen marfa costume by ivan bilibin

prince guidon costume by ivan bilibin

jealous sister from tale of tsar saltan costume  by ivan bilibin

opera scene from tsar saltan 1900

tale of tsar saltan scene by ivan yakovlevich bilibin

scene from opera of tsar saltan by bilibin ivan

queen marfa in opera tale of tsar saltan

chernomor and his army in opera tsar saltan by bilibin

jealous sister and king saltan in opera scene

Bilibin wasn’t the only artist who contributed to the scenery of the opera made after the tale of Tsar Saltan. Next paintings were made by Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel (1856-1910) and there is even a photo of his wife Nadezhda Zabela Vrubel (1868-1913), famous opera singer, in the role of Swan Princess.

opera scene by mikhail vrubel tsar saltan

portrait of princess swan by mikhail vrubel

princes swan and prince guidon by mikhail vrubel

photo of nadezhda vrubel in the role of princess swan

Last set of illustrations is done by Boris Zvorykin (1872-1942), who had similar artistic style, spent years in France, and loved similar folk motifs as Bilibin,  but didn’t manage to achieve his fame due political problems. Now we can at least pay him some tribute with last five illustrations.

boris zvorykin tsar saltan illustration

boris zvorykin illustration from the tale of tsar saltan

boris zvorykin illustration of tale of tsar saltan

boris zvorykin pushkin tsar saltan illustration

boris zvorykin skazka o tsare saltane

Other artists were inspired by the same tale and here are two more links to their works, first by Natalia Sergeevna Goncharevna (1881-1962) and second by Aleksander Mikhailovich Kurkin (1916-):

All presented images are in public domain and are edited by me. If you want to use one or more of them, a link to this post would be appreciated, and if you need one in higher resolution, just drop me a note, maybe I have it:)

I hope you enjoyed in the Tale of the Tsar Saltan!

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