One of my current assignments is to do a biographical sketch on a recipient of the Caldecott Medal (awarded for excellence in children’s illustration). I hurried to choose Ludwig Bemelman’s because I remembered how much I adored irrepressible Madeline. Thus far into my research, I’m so into Bemelmans. His life, his honesty and joie de vivre–I can’t get enough. Although it is good to enjoy the subject of an assignment, it’s not exactly helping me quickly finish my work.
Bemelmans’ speech is definitely worth the read; it will surprise you.
[(essay date 22 June 1954) In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal awarded to him for Madeline’s Rescue, Bemelmans discusses his inspiration for the first two Madeline books.]
“My deep gratitude to the members of the American Library Association for the Caldecott Medal.
Now we shall talk about art.
There is one life that is more difficult than that of the policeman’s and that is the life of the artist.
I have repeatedly said two things that no one takes seriously, and they are that first of all I am not a writer but a painter, and secondly that I have no imagination. It is very curious that, with my lack of these important essentials, the character of Madeline came to be. It accounts perhaps for her strength; she insisted on being born. Before she came into the world, I painted. That is, I placed canvas or paper on an easel before me and made pictures. I found in this complete happiness and satisfaction.
The unfortunate thing about painting is that the artist must exhibit, and at exhibitions, along with his work, exhibit himself; that he has to see his work, which is as his children, sold; see it wrapped up and taken away. I felt sorry for many of my pictures and those of other painters. I wish that there were a way of acquiring dogs or paintings other than by walking into a store and paying for them. The art market, then, the faces of the people who come and look at pictures, the methods of arriving at success, which entail self-advertisement and the kissing of hands, were not my dish.
I looked for another way of painting, for privacy; for a fresh audience, vast and critical and remote, to whom I could address myself with complete freedom. I wanted to do what seemed self-evident–to avoid sweet pictures, the eternal still lifes, the pretty portraits that sell well, arty abstractions, pastoral fireplace pictures, calendar art, and surrealist nightmares.
I wanted to paint purely that which gave me pleasure, scenes that interested me; and one day I found that the audience for that kind of painting was a vast reservoir of impressionists who did very good work themselves, who were very clear-eyed and capable of enthusiasm. I addressed myself to children.
You will notice in Madeline that there is very little text and there is a lot of picture. The text allows me the most varied type of illustration: there is the use of flowers, of the night, of all of Paris, and such varied detail as the cemetery of Père la Chaiseand the Restaurant of the Deux Magots. All this was there waiting to be used, but as yet Madeline herself hovered about as an unborn spirit.
Her beginnings can be traced to stories my mother told me of her life as a little girl in the convent of Altoetting in Bavaria. I visited this convent with her and saw the little beds in straight rows, and the long table with the washbasins at which the girls had brushed their teeth. I myself, as a small boy, had been sent to a boarding school in Rothenburg. We walked through that ancient town in two straight lines. I was the smallest one, but our arrangement was reversed. I walked ahead in the first row, not on the hand of Mademoiselle Clavel at the end of the column.
All this, as I said, for many years hung in the air and was at the back of my mind. Madeline finally began to take shape in France, where I had gone to paint. My daughter Barbara was about Madeline’s age when we went to the Isle d’Yeu for a summer vacation. This was then an island without any pretensions, and has since become famous as the place of detainment of Marshal Pétain. There was the usualHôtel des Voyageurs and the Café de la Marine. The house we rented was twenty-five dollars for the season. It had its own private beach and the beds were always full of sand. A few miles away lived a man who owned a few lobsterpots and a fishing boat, and I bicycled there regularly to buy the makings of a bouillabaisse or a fish stew.
One day, pedaling along the road home with the sack of sea-food over my shoulder, both hands in my pockets, and tracing fancy curves in the roadbed, I came to a bend which was hidden by some pine trees. Around this turn, coming the other way, raced the island’s only automobile–a four horsepower Super Rosengart belonging to the baker of Saint Sauveur, the capital village on the island. This car was a fragrant, flour-covered breadbasket on wheels. I collided with it, and it threw me in a wide curve off the bicycle into a bramble bush. I had taken the car’s doorhandle off with my arm and I was bleeding. I asked the baker to take me to the hospital in Saint Sauveur, but he said that according to French law, a car that has been involved in an accident has to remain exactly where it was when the crash occurred so that the gendarmes can make their proper deductions and see who was on the wrong side of the road. I tried to change his mind, but he said: “Permit me alors, Monsieur; if you use language like that it is no use at all to go on with this conversation.”
Having spoken, he went to pick up his pain de ménage and some croissants that were scattered on the road, and then he spread the branches of the thicket to look for the handle of his Super Rosengart. I took my lobsters and went to the hospital on foot.
After I had waited for a time, an old doctor came, with a cigarette stub sticking to his lower lip. He examined my wound, cleaned it, and then with a blunt needle he wobbled into my arm. “Excusez moi,” he said, “but your skin is very, very tough.” I was put into a small, white, carbolicky bed, and it took a while for my arm to heal. Here were the stout sister that you see bringing the tray to Madeline, and the crank on the bed. In the room across the hall was a little girl who had had an appendix operation, and, standing up in bed, with great pride she showed her scar to me. Over my bed was the crack in the ceiling “That had the habit, of sometimes looking like a rabbit.” It all began to arrange itself. And after I got back to Paris I started to paint the scenery for the book. I looked up telephone numbers to rhyme with appendix. One day I had a meeting with Léon Blum, and if you take a look at the book, you will see that the doctor who runs to Madeline’s bed is the great patriot and humanitarian Léon Blum.
And so Madeline was born, or rather appeared by her own decision.
Now we come to the sequel, which is the bearer of this medal and the reason why I am here tonight. …
In this story Madeline shares the pages with a dog. This dog came about in a strange way. My wife’s parents live in Larchmont, and in a house next door to them is a family of outwardly respectable folk–that is, no one in that solid community would suspect that this quiet and respectable suburban house was occupied by a poet. Her name is Phyllis McGinley and she writes for The New Yorker.
She has two little girls, and they said, “Why don’t you write another Madeline?” So I offered them fifty cents apiece if they would give me an Idea, for I was paralyzed with lack of imagination. The children did not even go out of the room. They came with hands held out, and after I paid them they stated the plot:
“There’s a dog, see–Madeline has a dog. And then the dog is taken away but it comes back again, maybe with puppies so all the girls can have dogs.”
That was tight and clever dramatic construction, and now there remained the dog to find. I said, “What kind of a dog?”
“Oh, any kind of a dog.”
I went back to Paris and started to look for any kind of a dog. And of that breed Genevieve is a member.
I had a studio at the time in a house on the Seine at number one Git de Coeur, and I walked down to the quay and promenaded along there. Under one of the bridges there lived an old man with his dog. He loved it very much and he combed its fur with the same comb he did his own hair, and they sat together watching the fishermen and the passing boats. I started to draw that dog, and observed it. It loved to swim.
I now had the dog and I sat along the Seine, and thought about the new book. But as yet there wasn’t a plot I could use, and the little girls who might have done it for me were in America.
Then one day something happened. An object was floating down the Seine, and little boys ran along the quay, and as the object came near it turned out to be an artificial leg. One of the little boys pointed at it and said, “Ah, la jambe de mon Grandpère!”
At that same moment a long line of little girls passed over the bridge des Arts,followed by their teacher. They stopped and looked, holding onto the iron rails with their white-gloved hands. The leg was now very close, and the dog jumped into the Seine and retrieved it, struggling ashore and pulling it from the water by backing up the stones.
There suddenly was a great vision before me. The plot was perfect.
There are many problems ahead. Who are Madeline’s parents? Who are the other girls, what are their names, what new disaster shall Mademoiselle Clavel rush to? The next Madeline on which I have been working for two years concerns a boy called Pepito, the son of the Spanish Ambassador who lives next door to the little girls and is a very bad hat.
I’m looking for him now. That is, I’ve been to Spain three times and searched for him and for his house. As yet, nothing has come up, but with patience it always does, for somewhere he is, lives and breathes. The portrait of life is the most important work of the artist and it is good only when you’ve seen it, when you’ve touched it, when you know it. Then you can breathe life onto canvas and paper.”