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A Fabulous Fable Find

La Fontaine Fables, a rare two-volume set acquired by the Rev. Greg Carlson, SJ, will be housed in the rare book room at Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library.When traveling or at home at Creighton University, the Rev. Greg Carlson, SJ, constantly keeps a sharp eye for possible pieces to add to the roughly 9,000 books and 5,000 objects housed in the Carlson Fable Collection.

So when he spotted a complete set of Marc Chagall’s etchings of Jean de La Fontaine’s fables for sale online, he could hardly contain his excitement.

“I didn’t even know there was a complete edition available,” Fr. Carlson said, a wide smile crossing his face. “You can find individual etchings for sale here and there, but a complete set? It’s very rare.”

La Fontaine is perhaps the most recognized fabulist behind Aesop. La Fontaine published more than 230 fables – some adapted from earlier fabulists – prior to his death in 1695.

More than 200 years later, in the early 1920s, French art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned Chagall to do a series of etchings illustrating 100 La Fontaine fables.

Chagall, considered a pioneer of modern art, was born in 1887 in Russia and later resettled in La Fontaine’s native France. He began work on the etchings in 1927 and finished in 1930.

It wasn’t until 1952, however, that La Fontaine Fables was published as a limited edition – with only 200 prints. Chagall died in 1985, at the age of 97.

The oversized publication was not bound, which has allowed book owners and dealers to break up the set and sell the Chagall prints individually.

Earlier this year, Fr. Carlson was able to purchase the complete two-volume La Fontaine Fables through a book dealer in London, with all 102 of Chagall’s etchings (including cover and back-page illustrations), thanks to a generous grant from the Dillon Foundation.

“Without the Dillon Foundation, this would have been out of our reach,” Fr. Carlson said.

Fr. Carlson, who has been collecting fable books and objects for the past 35 years, gifted his collection to Creighton University in 1996. La Fontaine Fables is currently located in the Rare Books Room in the Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library, and is available for research and viewing by appointment.

“This is a pearl in an already valuable fable collection,” Fr. Carlson said. “These are the stories that have shaped our culture for centuries.”

The $102,000 grant from the Dillon Foundation not only funds the purchase of La Fontaine Fables, but it also will help support the continued cataloging of the Carlson Fable Collection.

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