Hans Christian Andersen’s Papercuts

Hans Christian Andersen’s Papercuts

By Will Noel

I bumped into Andrea Immel, curator of the Cotsen collection in the hallway the other day. She was wheeling a stack of goodies down the corridor in Special Collections, and I prevailed upon her to stop and show me one. She revealed this papercut, one of three by Hans Christian Andersen found in the same scrapbook.

Papercut showing ballerinas dancing
Papercut by Hans Christian Andersen with the inscription “Cut out by Hans Anderson [sic] 1855 given to Helen.” Scrapbook, Cotsen Children’s Library.

Andersen was nothing if not a showman.  Andrea told me that he would spend his time regaling audiences large and small with stories. As he did so, very often, he would be attacking innocent pieces of paper, not with tiny delicate scissors, but with massive ones. At the end of his stories, he would unfold the paper sheets to reveal little masterpieces. In the example above, he presents us with ballerinas dancing on stage. Ballet was one of his great passions, as can also be seen in another papercut in the Cotsen collections (shown below), where dancing ballerinas are some of the 83 different figures cut from paper.

Elaborate papercut showing a total of 83 figures (dancing ballerinas, squatting clowns, figures walking on stilts, a boy with an umbrella, cherubs, reindeer, and swans)
Papercut prepared by Hans Christian Andersen as a gift for the Melchoir family, ca. 1869. Cotsen Children’s Library.

The Cotsen collection has about a dozen such cutouts. Andrea told me that Andersen was an impossible houseguest who often outstayed his welcome, but we are so glad to have these material witnesses to his talent.