Madeline, the inquisitive French schoolgirl from Ludwig Bemelmans’s eponymous picture book series, may seem right at home in the impressionistic and quintessentially Parisian landscape of Bemelmans’s artwork. Yet an exhibit premiering at the New-York Historical Society, Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans, is devoted to exploring the influence of New York City on the artist. The exhibit is sponsored by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., and is on display until October 19; it moves to the Carle Museum the following month.
Though Bemelmans became best known for his tales of “12 little girls in two straight lines,” his own life story was anything but orderly. In Austria, while apprenticing in the hotel business, he was involved in a violent altercation with a waiter, resulting in the teenaged Bemelmans being faced with a choice: go to reform school or emigrate. He chose the latter; Bemelmans arrived at Ellis Island in 1914. Already acquainted with and fond of the hospitality business, he worked at a busboy for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He began to hone his own artistic instincts, beginning a new life that would be as filled with creative and financial difficulties as with fortuitous encounters with celebrities in posh establishments.
At a recent press preview for the exhibit, Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, spoke about how New York City helped to shape the kind of artist Bemelmans became. His art, she said, suggests “an immigrant reimagining a Europe he knew” from his childhood. Despite the French setting of the Madeline stories, Mirrer believes that the protagonist’s “fearless and funky” spirit is pure Big Apple. “I can tell you for a fact that Madeline was born in New York,” she said definitively. “We secretly think she was a New York kid.”
Madeline in New York curator Jane Bayard Curley led the preview group through a tour of the exhibit, describing the many discoveries she made while in the process of pulling together the featured art and memorabilia. Panels commissioned for the playroom onboard Aristotle Onassis’s yacht are included in the exhibit, as are murals removed from the walls of Bemelmans’s failed Paris bistro, La Colombe. Other diverse works on display include original watercolor and gouache paintings from the Madeline books, Bemelmans’s cartoon work, hand-painted Madeline plates, and sketches for fabric design.
As for the illustrator’s own temperament, “He could never sit still,” Curley said. “He was a wanderer, a nomad, and a bad boy” who knew both “mobsters and millionaires.” She also described him as a “natural-born chronicler,” who furiously documented details of the people he met and the city he came to know intimately.
Bemelmans was a compulsive scribe and scribbler: hotel walls, napkins, and menus, some of which are on display in the exhibit, were frequently his canvasses. He was, Curley said, “self-taught, ferociously clever” often speaking to adults through his work for children. Bemelmans paid homage to individuals including Ethel Barrymore, the source of the line that Bemelmans used at the end of each Madeline book – “That’s all there is; there isn’t anymore” – and to Oscar Wilde, a fellow misfit for whom, Curley explained, Bemelmans felt a particular affinity. In fact, it was just such “deeper layers to these books” that may have led to the first Madeline story being initially rejected for publication.
May Massee, the founding editor of Viking Press’s children’s books department, became acquainted with Bemelmans’s art when she visited his New York apartment. She saw the paintings he had created on his windows in an attempt to brighten the dreary city view, and declared that he absolutely must write children’s books. However, when he presented the manuscript for Madeline, she turned it down, deeming it “too sophisticated.” After the first Madeline book was published by Simon & Schuster in 1939, Massee regretted her decision. Viking would eventually publish the subsequent books in the series.
In a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy, Bemelmans once described Madeline as “therapy in the dark hours.” So where did the irrepressible, sometimes subversive, but always judicious schoolgirl really come from? In all literary creations, there is rarely a single point of origin – Bemelmans’s wife, for example, was named Madeleine with the extra “e.” Curley also shared that Bemelmans was fond of speaking about an encounter he had while vacationing on Île d’Yeu of the western coast of France. Riding his bicycle with two lobsters tucked under his arms, he was knocked off his bike and went to the hospital. There, he met a girl who boasted about how she had had her appendix removed – and on the ceiling above the girl’s bed was a crack that resembled a rabbit.