Madeline, that little girl who grew up in a Catholic boarding school in Paris, just turned 75, but she doesn't look a day over 7. That was her age in the classic children's books written and drawn by the force of nature known as Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962). Indeed, time stands still in Madeline's world, and it seems to have done the same for her creator, as witnessed in the charming retrospective exhibition "Madeline at 75: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans," on view through February at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass.
The delight that Bemelmans took in life is palpable at every turn in this exhibition, which embraces far more than just his celebrated children's books. No single genre could contain such prodigious energies. His art appeared in books, on menus, set designs, fabrics, ceramics, murals, magazine pages, comic strips, gag cartoons and even on panels aboard Aristotle Onassis's yacht (two of which are on view here).
"Bemelmans was a bon vivant and had a Rolodex the size of Gibraltar," says Jane Bayard Curley, the curator for "Madeline at 75," which enjoyed a record-breaking run at the New-York Historical Society earlier this year before coming to Amherst. "Madeline was his alter ego. He was reinventing his early idyllic childhood before it was ripped away from him. He really believed, like Madeline, that school should be an adventure, never take place in a classroom. He was the original poster boy for ADHD."
Bemelmans grew up in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria, his father a Belgian artist and his mother the daughter of German brewers. Until he was about Madeline's age, Ludwig led an idyllic life, doted on by a French nanny and able to act out his every imaginative whim.
"But then his father ran off with another woman, leaving both his mother and the governess pregnant," said Curley. "Ludwig was dragged off to Germany to live with relatives. Boom, he went from a whimsical household where French was spoken to crew-cuts, German school and discipline. He was a total flop in school, so his family decided to apprentice him to his Uncle Hans, who owned a number of resort hotels in the Alps."
Bemelmans, the free spirit, was a screw-up. After he shot a waiter at one of his uncle's hotels, he was given the choice: the reformatory or America. He chose the latter and that made all the difference. The exhibition, in fact, opens with a huge reproduction of how Bemelmans perceived America, as he chugged past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island. In his drawing, Native Americans are attacking his ship, as well as ravaging people in the distance, and the trains of Manhattan ran on top of the buildings.
He spent the next 15 years, off and on, working at the Ritz-Carlton, his hilarious experiences and misadventures chronicled in bestselling books for adults, like "My War with the United States" and "Hotel Splendide." "He was in the sweet spot of appealing to both adult and children readers," said Curley.
He turned to art during the dark period of his U.S. Army service in World War I. Because he had a German accent, he was not sent to the front but to a military mental hospital in upstate New York. "He thought it would be fun, fantasizing that he'd be around people who thought they were Napoleon," said Curley. "But these were seriously damaged men, shell-shock victims, and he himself had a breakdown in which he was suicidal. But he was saved by what he called 'islands of security,' little imaginary scenes from his childhood."
He bought a set of crayons to try to capture the scenes, and never looked back. He spent the rest of his life proving he was an artist, without any training other than what he taught himself. He turned to watercolor, gouache, acrylics and oils, and mastered them all. And he attracted a worldwide following.
One of his biggest fans was Jackie Kennedy, who wrote him a letter in 1960, inviting him to the White House and suggesting they collaborate on a Madeline book set in the White House. The most touching piece in the exhibition, in fact, is a letter from "Jacqueline" on White House stationery. She talks about her daughter Caroline wanting to jump off the Key Bridge, like Madeline did in the story, as "the quickest way of obtaining notoriety and a dog and 12 puppies. I hope I shan't have to sue you for your evil influence at some future date."
Included with this is his and his wife's guest passes to the White House on April 29, 1962. Bemelmans died six months later, never completing the collaboration with the first lady. (His grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, completed the book, which was published in 2011).
MADELINE AT 75: THE ART OF LUDWIG BEMELMANS is on view through Feb. 22 at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, Mass. Information: 413-658-1118, carlemuseum.org