Art that speaks to the child in all of us: captivating and nostalgic children’s picture book art is strengthening its presence on both gallery walls and the museum circuit

Art that speaks to the child in all of us: captivating and nostalgic children’s picture book art is strengthening its presence on both gallery walls and the museum circuit – Picture Book Art

Vanessa Silberman

It’s fair to say that most people, young or old, don’t realize when they are paging through their favorite children’s picture book that there is an actual work of art behind each illustration–a painting, a pen-and-ink drawing, a paper cut-out or collage, perhaps. Neither do they realize the amount of time, skill, imagination and talent that went into creating the original art, which may be much larger or smaller than the illustration reproduced in the book. As Gail Aaron, curator of the Rutgers Collection of Original Illustrations for Children’s Literature at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, N.J., explained, “Even as adults, we don’t reflect on these things. It passes us by. So when people come to our picture book shows, they respond with great delight and surprise at how beautiful the artwork is. These are fully realized works of art, not secondary accompaniments to words.”

Indeed, over the last few years, those in the business of exhibiting, buying and selling children’s illustration art have noticed a shift in the public’s perception of the genre. Galleries exhibiting picture book art are finding success selling originals and limited editions by artists both familiar–Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak–and the not-so familiar–Daniel San Souci and Barry Root. In addition, a new museum dedicated to showing picture book art within the context of fine art, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, recently opened in Amherst, Mass., to rave reviews. For a genre that has been repeatedly dismissed by art purists, picture book art is proving to the world that while its content may appear light, it is an art form to be taken seriously.

More Than Meets the Eye

The wide variety of subjects and styles found in picture book art, from Carle’s colorful and bold illustrations in The Grouchy Ladybug, to Dr. Seuss’ delightful, caricature-like drawings in Green Eggs and Ham, to N.C. Wyeth’s sophisticated traditional illustrations for the Knights of the Round Table, is one of its key selling points. “Picture book art appeals to just about everybody, regardless of age,” confirmed Gallery Owner Richard Michelson of R. Michelson Galleries in Northhampton, Mass. “I find it is difficult for anyone but a philistine to resist the lure of great picture book art.”

Michelson should know. His gallery has been featuring children’s book illustrations since 1986, when Barry Moser, whose wood engravings and non-illustrative work it represented, completed his first children’s book. Michelson then completed his own children’s book in 1993, illustrated by sculptor, printmaker and watercolorist Leonard Baskin. Today, in addition to being a distinguished children’s book author and gallery owner, Michelson writes children’s book reviews for The New York Times.

Aaron noted that one of the reasons picture book art has mass appeal is because the illustrator “has to please a wide range of people before a book goes into print. But,” she continued, “I think children’s book artists are in love with their work, and that feeling of enthusiasm and passion to make a great book comes through in their art. People can sense it, and it draws them in.”

Nostalgia, coupled with the familiarity of the images, are two other factors which lure people to the magic of picture book art. Who can forget such memorable characters as the Grinch, Humpty Dumpty or Curious George? Often, these illustrations are the first real art that people are exposed to. As Michelson explained, “Art that you grow up with, like your first love or your earliest friends, always has a special place in your heart.” Indeed, illustrations from these books are cherished from childhood and have a strong resonance with people. When they finally encounter a painting they can own that they remembered seeing as a child, it is a very powerful incentive to buy, according to Roger Reed of Illustration House in New York.

H. Nichols B. Clark, founding director of the Eric Carle Museum, agreed. “People like what they know, and people know this material from a very special context–reading to a child. By taking it out of that context and treating it as art, they can still talk about it in very familiar terms” he said.

Museum Interest Catches On

“This is a very strong time for picture book art,” Michelson said. “More and more, museums are calling me to help curate exhibitions of children’s book art, something that almost never happened as recently as 10 years ago.”

Indeed, museum interest in picture book art is a recent phenomenon, one that owes much to two groundbreaking exhibitions and the recently opened Eric Carle Museum. Together, they have helped change both the public’s and the art crowd’s perceptions about the art form. The first exhibit was the 1996 national exhibition, “Myth, Magic and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children’s Book Illustration,” which opened at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., and then traveled to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tenn., and the Delaware Art Museum.

Co-curated by Clark, his wife, Trinkett, and Michael Patrick Heam, the exhibit featured more than 250 works lent by more than 100 donors. The exhibit”remains one of the true high watermarks in the museum’s history” said the Chrysler’s Rick Salzberg. “The curators created a new genre worthy of museum attention. There had been wonderful pop culture shows before–comic book art, for example–but this put it into context and connected it to the literary. The most beautiful part was how the work spoke to everyone. Contemporary art spoke to youngsters, while the older art appealed to the older generations. We all aspire to have shows that appeal to entire families, and this did it better than anything we’ve encountered since.”

The other exhibit, the blockbuster “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People,” co-organized by the High Museum in Atlanta and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., opened in 1999 and convinced even skeptics that Rockwell’s illustrative work, which included children’s book illustrations, was important on a fine art level. (The exhibit recently ended its national tour at the Guggenheim in New York.)

The acceptance of Rockwell’s work has helped pave the path for illustration art in general. “When scholars saw the original work, they began to realize Rockwell was a much finer and more serious artist than what they had apprised through seeing his work in reproduction,” explained Clark, who was involved with the show while on staff at the High.

“The same thing is beginning to happen with picture book art,” he continued. “We’re seeing it today at museums, where people come in and say they never realized how sophisticated, elegant or beautiful the work is in the original because, inevitably, it loses something in the printing process.”

The Rockwell Museum in Stock bridge exhibits picture book art by other artists as well. Award-winning children’s book illustrator Fred Marcellino was the subject of the recent exhibit, “Dancing by the Light of the Moon: The Art of Fred Marcellino,” while “The Berenstain Bears Celebrate: The Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain” is on view through May 26.

But it is the recently opened Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, named after museum co-founder and renowned author and illustrator of more than 70 books, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Grouchy Ladybug, that has received the loudest praise for its devotion to the genre as an art form.

While other institutions featuring children’s illustration art, like the Rockwell Museum and The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, existed prior to the opening of the Carle Museum, it is the first institution to mount picture book exhibits in a traditional museum context, working both with a permanent collection and traveling, international exhibits, according to Clark.

The museum features rotating installations by Carle and four guest artists each year. The current guest is Nancy Ekholm Burkert, famous for her illustrations of James and the Giant Peach.

Another feature of the Carle Museum is that it presents works with the picture book text conspicuously missing. “We hope to encourage visitors to concentrate more on the images as pure art,” Clark explained, noting that the accompanying text can be found in book bins in each gallery. “In the past, curators and scholars’ research has been much more text-based with cursory attention paid to the importance of the visuals. We want people to appreciate these images visually instead of seeing them inextricably connected to the text.”

Thus far, the results have been gratifying. “We’re seeing families engage with the art and talk about what they are looking at, and the child often has more to say than the parent does. The playing field has been levelled as the parent has been relieved of the responsibility of being the authority figure. It’s been amazing to watch.”

A Changing Market

As museums have taken notice of picture book art, so have collectors. According to Michelson, the market for picture book art has changed dramatically in the last 17 years since he first opened his business. “At first, many of our clients and our artists were concerned the gallery was selling itself short and `pandering’ to a baser public taste,” he explained. “But as the years have passed and clients have seen the consistently high-quality and innovative styles of many of the illustrations, that response has faded. Now, illustrative art is one of the fastest-selling and best-loved sections of the gallery.”

Michelson has even added a large addition to the gallery just to handle the increased traffic in its illustration area, where best-selling artists include Sendak, Dr. Seuss (who grew up 15 miles from the gallery), Jane Dyer, Barry Moser, Mordicai Gerstein and Diane DeGroat. The price range for originals is between $750 and $7,500, while limited-edition prints generally range from $150 to $500.

Bill Dreyer of The Chase Group in Northbrook, Ill., which publishes limited-edition prints of Dr. Seuss, said the company also encountered resistance when it first began offering the hand-pulled lithographs to galleries, but for a slightly different reason. “Initially, there was some hesitation by galleries, because the posthumous work wasn’t signed by the artist,” said Dreyer. “But over time, when galleries showed it and they realized that the audience for Seuss work was so large, they didn’t sea it as an issue. Plus, each work has an estate-approved signature or estate seal.”

Today, the fan base for illustration art by Dr. Seuss is tremendous, noted Dreyer. To be sure, Seuss is an American icon, one whose influence on children’s literature has been monumental. He is the best-selling children’s author of all time with more than half a billion books sold worldwide. Inextricably tied to his legacy are his imaginative, caricature-like drawings that illustrate his 44 books–featuring unforgettable characters like Sam I Am, the Grinch and Foxy Socks.

“The book images are very popular on a broad base,” Dreyer said. “They are recognizable–anyone who knows Dr. Seuss had a favorite character. And, apart from being an American icon who has a place in our hearts, Seuss was an accomplished artist who created exceptional work.” The lithographs, priced between $225 and $325, are available in limited editions of 1,500 and 2,500, and many have sold out.

Dreyer noted that the link between author and artist is important to some collectors. “Collectors like that they’re getting artistic drawings and depictions from the mind and hand of the creator,” he said. Dr. Seuss, Sendak, Leo Lionni and Ludwig Bemelmans are just a few examples of illustrators who authored their own books.

Reed of New York’s Illustration House, which has been showing picture book art since it opened in 1974, said museum-quality works can still be had for between $1,000 and $5,000. When the book is very famous, or the artist is very well known (or some combination of the two), then “the sky’s the limit.” The 1939 cover of the first Madeline book by Bemelmans, for example, sold for $137,500 at a 1999 Illustration House auction, while a pair of drawings by A.B. Frost recently sold for $35,200.

Over on the opposite coast, the Chemers Gallery in Tustin, Calif., has hosted an annual children’s book illustrator show for the past 11 years. “The annual event is wildly popular,” said Rita Chemers. “Our show is always at the end of November or beginning of December. People start asking us for show details in August.” Prices for work by contemporary illustrators like Barry Root and Daniel San Souci range from $100 to $15,000 for originals.”For the adults who buy these illustrations for themselves, the appeal seems to be overwhelmingly emotional,” she added.

Gallery owners say the audience for illustrative art has matured as the baby boom generation–the first raised on the ready availability of picture books–has passed on their love of the medium to their children and grandchildren. While children’s bedrooms are a likely choice for hanging picture book art, gallery owners agree that collectors hang these pieces in their living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms, as well. “Seuss illustrations have a broad appeal beyond the children’s rooms,” commented Dreyer. “Seuss used to say he didn’t write for children–he wrote for people. When you look at his books, you realize it’s true.”

In fact, the universal appeal of children’s illustration art has attracted established fine artists, such as Baskin, to cross-over for a book or two, maybe more. At the same time, Michelson noted that traditional picture book artists like Sendak and Carle are moving beyond the boundaries of the 32-page book and are creating theater set designs, large scale paintings and drawings.

Looking Ahead

Although still more than a year away, the 100th birthday celebration of Dr. Seuss in March 2004 is already generating a buzz one can hardly ignore. Preparations leading up to the day have long been underway, from the unveiling of the Dr. Seuss national memorial in his hometown of Springfield, Mass., in May 2002, to a touring exhibition at galleries and the release of the film, “Cat in the Hat,” starring Mike Myers next fall, to the issue of a Dr. Seuss U.S. Postal stamp, the publication of a limited-edition book by Random House and the revival of the musical, “Seussical.” Indeed, it seems the whole country will be reciting lines from Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax this time next year.

Aaron believes the celebrations and exposure will benefit the genre as a whole. “Every time there is attention to someone who is a household name, like Dr. Seuss, it presents an opportunity to bring people together to look at children’s books and children’s book illustrations. We also hope to broaden their tastes. There are many great children’s book illustrators out there who will never be as famous as Dr. Seuss. But their work might give equal if not more pleasure to a child or an adult in certain ways. There is just a world of illustration to explore.”


* Chase Group, 847-564-2000

* Chemers Gallery, (714) 731-5432

* Illustration House, (212) 966-9444

* R. Michelson Galleries, (413) 586-3964

* The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, currently on view: Works by Carle and Burkert. (413) 658-1139

* The Norman Rockwell Museum, currently on view: “The Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain.” (413) 298-4100

* The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, currently on view: “Oh,Those Mice!” (732) 932-7237

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