Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans

There are some books that are etched in my memories of childhood—Babar, Where the Wild Things Are, Pierre, and last but certainly not least, Madeline.

I remember when my twin sister and I were about six-years old running down the streets of Paris on our way to school, chanting, “Boohoo, we want to have our appendix out, too!”[1]

And so, my heart skipped a beat when I heard that the New York Historical Society Museum & Library was commemorating the 75th anniversary of Madeline’s publication, with an exhibit entitled, “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.”

Madeline - NYHS

The exhibit follows the life of Ludwig Bemelmans, most notably from his arrival in New York through Ellis Island in 1914. He became a busboy at the Ritz Hotel on Madison Avenue and 46th Street in 1915.[2] He then served in the army, became a naturalized citizen, and subsequently returned to the Ritz. He spent 15 years at the Ritz, working his way up to assistant banquet manager. It was during the 1920s and 1930s that he also started work on cartoons and commercial pieces to help to pay his rent. His work for Judge magazine caught the attention of children’s book editor, May Massee at Viking Press, who thought, “he had potential as a children’s book author.” (Source: NY Hist. Society Exhibit) Working on cartoons, also helped “hone his craft as a storyteller . . . “ where he learned to “balance strong images with minimal text.” (Source: NY Hist. Society Exhibit)

Madeline - Stairs

Bemelmans started to write Madeline at Pete’s Tavern. (Interestingly, Madeline was originally spelled as “Madeleine,” but as Bemelmans worked the story, he realized it rhymed better as “Madeline.”) The idea for the story came to him when he was hospitalized in 1938, after having been hit by a baker’s truck. When he was in the hospital, the girl resting next to him had appendicitis. He did some sketches at Café Voltaire in Paris, but “it was only in New York that he realized the full story of Madeline.” (Source: NY Hist. Society Exhibit) Madeline won the Caldecott Honor Medal in 1940.

The exhibit includes illustrations from all six Madeline books, among his other notable works.

There is a wonderful family audio guide, for children ages 4 and up, to accompany you on your visit. The audio guide is geared for children with questions for them to ponder as they examine Bemelmans’ work. The audio guide also includes an excerpt from Bemelmans himself. What a treat it was to hear his voice!

Bemelmans loved his work. He once described children as, “A clear-eyed, critical and hungry audience of people, all of whom are impressionists themselves, who love my pictures and sometimes even eat them.” (Source: NY Hist. Society Exhibit)

The exhibit runs through October 19, 2014. The New York Historical Society also offers Madeline tea parties. For more information about the exhibit and their tea parties, please click on the word, Madeline.

And on a parting note,

“Good night, little girls!

Thank the lord you are well!

And now go to sleep!”

said Miss Clavel.

And she turned out the light—

and closed the door—

and that’s all there is—

there isn’t any more.”[3]


[1] Bemelmans, Ludwig. Madeline. Ed. Simon and Schuster. 1939. New York: Puffin Books, Published by Penguin Group, 1998.

[2] The hotel was demolished in 1951, but Town & Country magazine commissioned Bemelmans to document his career at the hotel, and his wonderful illustrations are included in the exhibit.

[3] Bemelmans, Ludwig. Madeline. Ed. Simon and Schuster. 1939. New York: Puffin Books, Published by Penguin Group, 1998.


23 comments on “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans

  1. I love this post Robin. The way you interject your personal connection to the story draws me right in. Oh how I wish I’d known that this exhibit was in town as I was just in NYC on the weekend.

    • Thanks, Nancy! The exhibit will be running through Oct. 19th. So, if you’re in the city some time before then, I’d love to go again. (I won’t be around for August. It’s my one month where I get to hide out on the North Fork, and hopefully get some real writing done. :))

  2. I was SO certain that my little girl would love Madeline as much as I did, that I bought a boxed set. Sadly (sniff, sniff) she did not care for them.
    When I was pulling together hand-me-downs for her younger cousin when she passed me her Madeline doll AND the books and said “Here, take these too.” Mon dieu!

  3. MADELINE was one of my absolute FAvorites as a kid, along with anything Dr. Seuss! It’s funny, just recently I questioned my having always pronounced her name with a long “i” because I heard someone pronounce it with a short “i.” So you know, I actually found it upsetting?! lol I’m so glad you mentioned about the spelling ’cause it confirmed I was correct with it, possibly just going with the natural rhyme? Love this post! LOVE Miss Clavel and the girls running up the stairs! Love that you got to enjoy it 🙂

    • Thank, Donna! If you get a chance, it’s worth a trip into the city. Wonderful, wonderful exhibit. p.s. I loved that the museum put their artwork on the side of the stairs. So awesome! Wow!

  4. I saw this advertised in PW, I think. That’s cool you were able to go. Thanks for all the historical tidbits! I’ve always enjoyed Madeline.

    • Sandy, Thank you so much for this information. On the New York Historical Society’s website, there’s no mention (as far as I could see) of the return of the exhibit to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

  5. Hi Robin-I wanted to tell you that I too enjoyed the Madeline show. Went on a hot, sticky Sunday was it 3 weeks ago already? Fun show though and, as always, feel lucky to be so close to so many great kidlit exhibits in NYC. Thanks for checking out my blog too these past months. Looking forward to reading more of your posts and tweets this Fall.

    • Hey Annina, I’m so glad you got to go! I loved the exhibit. I’ll start posting again in the fall. Summer’s been very busy. I am sooo looking forward to school starting up again (for both my son and me!). Have really enjoyed following your blog. Love your illustrations. They’re wonderful. p.s. If you’re in the city, please give a shout. Would be fun to get together. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s