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Firework Illustration

The Fascinating Illustrated Story of Fireworks


These 18th century illustrations exquisitely narrate the allegorical story of firework displays in Europe.

Like many of history’s great discoveries, fireworks were created by accident. In China, around 2,200 years ago, the first one was a stalk of bamboo that exploded suddenly in a fire. The sound was so loud that the Chinese decided to use it to keep mountain men and evil spirits at bay. As a result, gunpowder, which is also a Chinese invention, was rammed into bamboo stalks to enhance the startling effect.

By the 11th century the Chinese used fireworks (yen huo) to celebrate the visit of the emperor. They included rockets (or “earth rats” because they were fired over the ground) and wheels, balls of colored smoke, firecrackers and fireworks attached to kites. They all made a “glorious sound.”

Gunpowder and pyrotechnics could have been invented in Europe independently, but they probably reached those shores via the Mongols, who left western China for central Europe in the mid-13th century. In the early modern era, pyrotechnics became a demonstration of power. Symbolic or allegorical shows were designed to send a message to the audience. A lion could represent a powerful king, or the killing of a dragon could signal the conquest of the king’s enemies. What is certain is that fireworks were, as they continue to be, a captivating spectacle that produces a kind of visual epiphany in the audience as they explode in the sky in a thousand colors and shapes. It is no coincidence that kings and emperors wanted to be related to them.

European monarchs then began to commission artists to produce large format drawings to be distributed to audiences. It would be thought, as Simon Werrett writes in a wonderful article, that the impressions of fireworks were created after the event, in retrospective, but that was not the case. It was usual for the drawings to be made before the event, as an anticipation of what the public would later remember, instead of a record of history.

The “anticipated memories” of fireworks served several purposes. They were published in pamphlets with explanations of their allegorical content and distributed to the people at court during the event so that nobody would miss the meaning of the sovereign’s message. The event was thus converted into a beautiful narrative or a story with meaning.

The diverse graphic narratives of fireworks – which date from the 17th century to one particularly beautiful one from the 19th century (Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: TheFalling Rocket) – comprise an exquisite graphic body now in the public domain. Each one captures an epiphany of meaning and dramatically expresses what pyrotechnics represented at the time.

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