‘Madeline’ art by Ludwig Bemelmans on display at New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the globally cherished Madeline books with an exhibition devoted to the cheeky French schoolgirl and her creator, Ludwig Bemelmans.

Immigrating to New York City in 1914, Bemelmans sketched the first incarnations of Madeline at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy; a fact that allows us to claim Madeline as a New Yorker at heart.

The exhibition details Bemelmans’ dramatic life (he was practically exiled from France in his youth for shooting a waiter), and his whimsical career that followed.

Born into a family of hoteliers, Bemelmans found a familiar setting at the Ritz, where he worked as a busboy. While serving in the military during World War I at an institution in upstate New York, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Bemelmans discovered solace in drawing, and upon returning to work at the Ritz would use its ballroom and empty suites as art studios.

Among the more than 90 paintings and artifacts on display is Bemelmans’ early comic-strip advertising work, an area he moved away from to focus on children’s books. Chronicled are the eccentricities of the author-artist, who listed his bathtub, the train, and behind the wheel of a car as his preferred writing environments.

When “Madeline” was first published in 1939, Bemelmans was also writing for The New Yorker. As his star climbed with the success of his books, his artwork too began to be featured in the magazine. The exhibition includes the wonderful cover artwork, “Riding in Central Park.”

Bemelmans loved to mingle with the rich and famous, a feeling that was reciprocated as evidenced by the commission work he did. For Aristotle Onassis, he painted the interior of The Christina yacht with Madeline’s adventures. Two of the yacht’s panels are featured in the exhibition.

In 1961, then-First Lady Jackie Kennedy wrote to Bemelmans, wanting to collaborate on a Madeline book where the schoolgirl pays a visit a young Caroline Kennedy at the White House. It was not to be, however, as Bemelmans died of pancreatic cancer the following year.

Madeline does finally visit the White House, thanks to Bemelmans’ grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, who has taken over the reins of the books series, and has produced six of his own Madeline stories.

It’s a gorgeous display that will appeal to all ages. The exhibition’s curator, Jane Curley, tells amNewYork she hopes visitors “will smile and laugh, and go out and enjoy life; because that’s what Bemelmans and Madeline were all about”.

Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans is celebrating its opening on July 4th with free admission for children.


If you go: Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans is at New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at 77th Street, through Oct. 19. nyhistory.org