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Exhibit celebrates ‘Madeline’ and Ludwig Bemelmans

A gouache painting by Ludwig Bemelmans for “Madeline and the Bad Hat.”
A gouache painting by Ludwig Bemelmans for “Madeline and the Bad Hat.” (TM and © Ludwig Bemelmans, LLC)

AMHERST - There are many surprises in the intensely lovely exhibit “Madeline at 75: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans” on view through Feb. 22 at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. Here’s the first: Madeline, the beloved star of the classic children’s books, may have lived in Paris but she was born in New York. According to “The Smallest One Was Madeline: An Appreciation of Ludwig Bemelmans,” the essay in the show’s catalog by curator Jane Bayard Curley, Bemelmans wrote his first draft on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern near Gramercy Park. An Austrian immigrant and artist and bon vivant, Bemelmans would publish “Madeline” in September 1939 — the week World War II began. Since then generations of parents and children have gotten delectably lost in the stories that begin: “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines / lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”

And for 76 years, they’ve followed this red-haired rebel, as she got lost at the circus, nearly drowned in the Seine, and jousted with Pepito, the “bad hat.” The exhibit features many paintings from the books (among dozens of other items) and they are as buoyant and original as their creator, with their cosmopolitan scenes (Notre Dame, the Institut de France, the Tuileries), and their rich watercolors charmed with quick lines. As Bemelmans (1898-1962) explained his style in a 1954 radio show: “The drawing has to sit on the paper as if you smacked a spoon of whipped cream on a plate.”

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Another surprise — that Miss Clavel is not a nun, as many readers assume — has a dark story attached. You won’t find it mentioned in this exhibit aimed at children, however. Curley knows about this through her contact with Bemelmans’s daughter’s family, and the truth is also revealed in “Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator,” by John Bemelmans Marciano, a grandson of the artist and author of the Madeline books after Ludwig’s death. It turns out the guardian of those 12 little girls was a governess, not a nun. At the turn of the 20th century, when Bemelmans was a little boy in Austria, French governesses wore severe garb, like nuns. “It was supposed to be unsexy, to keep the children’s fathers away,” explains Curley. “But Ludwig’s father was a real hound.” Lambert Bemelmans got the family governess pregnant, and his wife as well, then ran off with another woman — all when Ludwig was about Madeline’s age. The boy was shunted off to school in Germany. And the governess, whom he adored, committed suicide.

Much beautiful, wistful art comes from the will to displace tragedy, and so it is with Madeline; throughout his tumultuous (yet ebullient) life, Bemelmans found refuge in his creation. As a boy, he couldn’t pronounce “Mademoiselle” and so he called his governess “Gazelle” which in the book becomes “Miss Clavel.” The Madeline stories repainted the childhood he mourned, the one he wished he had. There are no parents to disappoint you. There is no school; in all the Madeline books, only one page shows a classroom — and the dog is the teacher. Even Paris is romanticized, since it’s the Paris that Gazelle introduced him to through postcards.

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As Bemelmans wrote in a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy, “For me, Madeline is therapy in the dark hours.”

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She’s therapy for many. Several generations have now reveled in Bemelmans’s six Madeline books (plus the later titles by Marciano), which have sold more than 13 million copies. With their cheeky heroine, plots full of mischief, and a tint of melancholy, they are “a great creative response to loss and shock,” says Curley, who gathered over a hundred items for the show, including paintings, sketches, decorated plates, mural panels, cartoons, magazine illustrations, letters, and such minor delights as Pepito’s hat. Aside from the exhibit, kids can enjoy many activities during February school vacation week, including making art in the museum’s light-drenched studio, and posing for a photo behind the life-size cutout of Madeline.

Knowing about Bemelmans’s sad childhood makes the exhibit’s first impression all the more striking; it’s a joyful explosion of color. The 1959 gouache painting “Picnic at Honfleur,” from “Madeline and the Gypsies” almost pulses with cornflower blues, tomato reds, and acid greens (note the monkey serving up lunch with a ladle). “Madeline at the Paris Flower Market” is a riot of violet and honey-yellow and stem-green. Bemelmans’s father was a painter, but Ludwig was self-taught (he couldn’t bear sitting in any painting class). His work is a bit like Matisse, though he jokingly called himself the “goofy Dufy.” It’s true Bemelmans’s line is comedic, but it’s not coarse. In fact, his first Madeline effort was deemed “too sophisticated for children” by his mentor May Massee, head of the juvenile department at Viking Press. Simon and Schuster scooped it up, and two Caldecotts (one honor, one medal) followed (Massee later bought the rights back).

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The entrance to the exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum.
The entrance to the exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum.(Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)

How did Bemelmans dream up Madeline? One clue comes from the exhibit’s “Ile d’Yeu,” a gouache and collage painting, all emeralds and orange-browns, jumbled masts and whitecaps. Bemelmans painted this in 1938, when he was on holiday on the island off western France with his wife and daughter, and got injured in a car accident. Recuperating in the hospital, he met a little girl who showed him her appendectomy scar. Madeline fans know how this winds up in a story, plus the image of the crack in the ceiling, which was above his hospital bed, and “had the habit, of sometimes looking like a rabbit.” Bemelmans said Madeline was a “concoction” of him, his mother (who was raised in a Bavarian convent), his daughter, and his wife, Madeleine. (Bemelmans dropped the extra “e” since Mad-uh-line is easier to rhyme than Mad-e-len).

An insomniac and workaholic, Bemelmans produced all kinds of art apart from children’s books, including cartoons, theatrical and interior designs, novels, screenplays, 31 New Yorker magazine covers, and murals for such clients as the Carlyle Hotel and Aristotle Onassis (some from his yacht are on display). More surprises: an ad he drew for Jell-O in 1932, and fabric he designed for a 1945 show at the Met. What accounted for this prolific versatility? “My greatest inspiration,” he said, “is a low bank balance.”

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“Pepito’s Hat” from the exhibit “Madeline at 75.”
“Pepito’s Hat” from the exhibit “Madeline at 75.” (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)

One highlight at the Carle is the homage artist Maira Kalman painted for him, showing Bemelmans sitting on a giant rabbit: “Humor. Panache. Joie de vivre. How much more French do we need to describe you?” Another is the letter exchange, displayed here in a glass case, between Bemelmans and Kennedy; they hoped to collaborate on a book about Madeline at the White House, perhaps called “Madeline visits Caroline.” In her note, penned on blue stationery marked “Hyannisport” at the top, the first lady jokes that Caroline, as part of her “culte de Madeline,” wanted to jump off Washington’s Key Bridge, like her heroine in “Madeline’s Rescue” as “the quickest way to obtain notoriety and a dog and 12 puppies.” Bemelmans sends one handwritten note, with a drawing of Madeline and two birds, and scrawls: “Have you been thinking? Love Ludwig.” In a second typewritten letter, he calls Mrs. Kennedy “cher colleague” and reassures her that “the story will float down, it always does.” Not this time, though. He died of pancreatic cancer in October 1962, at peace that his family would be provided for: As he told his wife, “Madeline will be our social security.”

At the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, the original “Madeline” manuscript.
At the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, the original “Madeline” manuscript.(Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)

This master of mishap had plenty of his own, and there’s quite a story behind how Bemelmans ended up in the United States. School was “kryptonite for him,” says Curley, who surmises Bemelmans had ADHD. He eventually left school to work in his uncle’s Tyrolean hotel, got into multiple scrapes, and ended up shooting a bullying headwaiter in the backside. At which point, he was given a choice: German reform school or leaving for America. He arrived in New York at 16, got a job in a hotel, joined the Army during World War I, was assigned to guard a mental hospital near Buffalo, and then — in exile, childhood trauma unresolved — had a mental breakdown of his own. During his months of confinement, Bemelmans drew “familiar, warm, and protective” scenes from his childhood, as he recalled in his 1941 memoir, “My War With the United States.” And so his life’s pattern, art as cure, was set in motion. In its obituary, Time magazine ran a telling quotation from Bemelmans. It seems to describe both his singular work, and this singular exhibit: “The purpose of art is to console and amuse — myself, and, I hope, others.”

Jacqueline Kennedy reading “Madeline” to daughter Caroline.
Jacqueline Kennedy reading “Madeline” to daughter Caroline.(Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
Ludwig Bemelmans’s paints and tools.
Ludwig Bemelmans’s paints and tools. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)

Katharine Whittemore, a freelance writer based in Northampton, can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.