DescriptionLUDWIG BEMELMANS (American, 1898-1962)
Madeline's Rescue, The Seine, Pont Pont Neuf, Statue of the Vert Galant, original book illustration, circa 1953
Gouache, tempera, watercolor and ink on paper laid on board
21-7/8 x 29-7/8 inches (55.6 x 75.9 cm) (sheet)
Signed lower right: Bemelmans
Inscribed along upper edge: The Seine - Pont Pont Neuf / Statue of the Vert Galant
Judy Goffman Cutler Fine Art, New York.
This dramatic illustration of a girl drowning in the Seine figures prominently in Ludwig Bemelmans' 1953 Madeline's Rescue, the second book in his classic Madeline series. The genesis of the now-famous Madeline character occurred over several years. In 1935, Austrian-born Bemelmans married fellow New Yorker Madeleine (Mimi) Freund, and while on their honeymoon in Belgium, he wrote The Golden Basket, featuring a redheaded, mischief-making schoolgirl in the care of a nun. Four years later, Bemelmans and his family traveled to Paris, and while recovering in a local hospital from an unexpected bike injury, he observed in the room next to him a small girl who had had her appendix removed; over her bed was a crack in the ceiling that looked like a rabbit. These unique images, coupled with memories of his mother's stories about convent schoolgirls dressed in uniforms and walking in two straight lines, prompted Bemelmans to write and ultimately publish Madeline in 1939. An instant hit, the book incorporated rhyming verse, a combination of gestural gouache paintings and black-and-white line drawings, Paris as the central setting, and the heroine Madeline, the smallest of twelve schoolgirls living in a convent overseen by the benevolent nun Miss Clavel. Over the course of his career, Bemelmans repeated this successful formula for an entire Madeline series: Madeline's Rescue (1953), Madeline and the Bad Hat (1956), Madeline and the Gypsies (1958), Madeline in London (1961), and Madeline's Christmas (published posthumously in 1985).
Despite the seeming spontaneity and simplicity of the Madeline books, Bemelmans worked on them for years, undertaking a painstaking process for publication. He would conceive of a plot through thousands of rough sketches and pieces of verse; a drawing could determine the plot or vice versa. Next, he would make several dummy copies of the book to visualize the relationship of image to text. During this later phase, in particular, he read copies to children for their honest reactions. A test version of the book was then published in a magazine, such as McCall's, Good Housekeeping, or Town & Country, in order to gauge the response of the broader public. After final tweaks, the book was ready for publication. Viking Press, Bemelmans' longtime publisher, reaped the benefits of the wildly moneymaking series.
Madeline's Rescue remains one of the most popular among the Madeline books, no doubt because of the introduction of Genevieve, a faithful dog. The story opens with Madeline's slipping from the Pont Neuf into the Seine after an attempt to frighten Miss Clavel. Even with the passionate attempts of nearby policemen, boaters, and fishermen to rescue her, it is a dog which leaps into the river and "drags her safe from a watery grave." Madeline's classmates beg Miss Clavel to keep the dog, which they name Genevieve and shower with affection, even teaching her how to sing. When the haughty president of the board of trustees, Lord Cucuface, arrives for his annual inspection of the school, he discovers Genevieve and throws her out into the street. Despondent, the girls search "high and low" throughout Paris for the dog and are gleefully surprised when she returns home after bedtime; they are further surprised when later that night, she gives birth to twelve puppies, "enough hound to go all around."
The magnificent current lot, "Poor Madeline would now be dead," is the fourth illustration in Madeline's Rescue and one of only three double-page color spreads (the others, an interior scene showing the girls searching for Genevieve in the Tuileries Garden, and an end piece showing the girls walking Genevieve along the Seine near Notre-Dame Cathedral). It is also the most pivotal moment in the story. Here, Bemelmans brilliantly renders the nervousness of the situation, as Madeline begins to drown, by encircling her with objects in frenzied motion: gendarmes waving their hooks, fisherman gesticulating with their rods, a painter dropping his easel to the ground, crowds yelling from the bridge, trees bending in the wind, even smoke furiously curling from house chimneys. Bemelmans juxtaposes this energized periphery with the calmer expanse of yellow river in the middle, and he situates Madeline's sinking hands near the center of the composition, the focal point of the incident. Punctuating the almost monochromatic yellow-and-gold painting are strategically placed bits of blue, from the police and painter in the foreground corners to the background house and statue, and to Madeline's tiny arms in the center. These intentional visual elements, ultimately drawing the viewer's eye to Madeline, reiterate the clever verse, "Poor Madeline would now be dead."
A triumph for Bemelmans and Viking Press, Madeline's Rescue was the only one of the series to win the prestigious Caldecott Medal, honoring the best picture book of the year (1954). In the following excerpt from an unpublished essay on the subject of winning the Caldecott, Bemelmans demonstrates his characteristic humor and self-deprecation:
The Caldecott medal, which was given me for Madeline's Rescue, is the first award I have received in my life. The announcement of the award filled me with apprehension. . . . I have in mind extending this prize to a dozen boys, and to go there and have our own graduation exercises, and after, a very fine sausage and kraut fest on the banks of the Danube with beer. . . . I must also add a word of consolation to parents here; my prizewinners all have made out better and are happier than those at the other end of the class. I have therefore asked Madeleine, my wife - who is extremely photogenic, and the exact opposite of me, the holder of citations, medals, and even a doctorate - to accept the award for Madeline's Rescue, on my behalf. Curious and marvelous about this award is that it was given to me at all (J. Marciano, Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline's Creator, New York, 1999, p. 71)
Bemelmans' colorful career went well beyond Madeline. As an essayist and humorist, he contributed to numerous magazines, including Harper's Bazaar, Horizon, The New Yorker, and Vogue. As a novelist and illustrator, he wrote around two books per year, around nineteen for children and this same number for adults. And as a designer, he painted murals for the Hapsburg House restaurant, the bar at the Hotel Carlyle (both in New York), and for a playroom for Aristotle Onassis, and he created sets and costumes for a Broadway play. Nonetheless, it was Madeline that made him a legend. Today, the Madeline legacy lives on through the books of John Bemelmans Marciano, Bemelmans' grandson.
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