The moon illuminates a still landscape through which a river flows sedately. Trees appear as dark silhouettes against the sky. Hand-in-hand, the elves sweep like a wispy mist through the landscape, their movements like a ring dance. One elf kisses the surface of the water or is reflected in it. Like the others, she has long flowing hair and is wearing a garland.
As a contemporary critic pointed out, you can either see the morning mist over the landscape as dancing elves, or you can see the dancing elves as a morning mist. If you choose to focus in on the morning mist, the elves can be explained as the movement of the mist. The painting can then be described as a romantic landscape, where nature is imbued with a spirit of its own. If instead, you see the dancing elves as the key motif, the painting can be described as a depiction of the fairytale world. According to Swedish folklore, elves live in nature and are often seen dancing around hills, burial mounds, mountains and forests. People were warned to watch out for elves, as they made people ill.
August Malmström’s Dancing Fairies became a widely recognised image through versions and reproductions in magazines and illustrations.