American Art

The Enduring Delight of Ludwig Bemelmans's 'Madeline'

By Halina Loft
Sotheby’s American Art sale on 17 September features two works by storied author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the award-winning children's book series Madeline.
"In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines..."

S o begins each story in the Madeline series, a revered collection of children's books from Austrian-born American writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans. The smallest of the girls, Bemelmans writes, "was Madeline."

The character of Madeline, a fearless little girl growing up in a Catholic boarding school in Paris, was first introduced to the world in 1939. That year, the 44-page book was published via Simon and Schuster, New York, to much acclaim. Young readers near and far were enchanted by Madeline's adventures, and the window the books offered into Parisian life.

LUDWIG BEMELMANS, An Illustration for 'Madeline' (And they brushed their teeth). Estimate $8,000 – 12,000.

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Sotheby's upcoming American Art auctions features two of Bemelmans's wonderful illustrations from the series. In the first, entitled An Illustration for 'Madeline' (And Bushed Their Teeth), twelve little girls stand brushing their teeth before bed, overseen by their caretaker Miss Clavel. This illustration was made for page 4 of the first Madeline book, to fit with the text:

"In two straight lines they broke their bread, and brushed teeth, and went to bed."
Bemelmans, Ludwig. 'Madeline'. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939.

The second illustration included in the auction, Madeline in Rome is a superbly colorful example of Bemelmans's characteristic style. In it, we see Madeline and the other little girls weaving their way through a park in Rome, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica visible in the background.

LUDWIG BEMELMANS, Madeline in Rome. Estimate $30,000 – 50,000.

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Following the success of Madeline, Bemelmans wrote four more books for the series: Madeline's Rescue (1953), Madeline and the Bad Hat (1956), Madeline and the Gypsies (1959), Madeline in London (1961) and Madeline's Christmas (1985). A seventh book, Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales, was discovered and subsequently published after Bemelmans's death. The second book in the series, Madeline's Rescue, was awarded the Caldecott Medal for exemplary American picture book illustration.

Bemelmans's inspiration for Madeline came from stories his mother, Franciska, told him of growing up in a convent. The author looked to his own experiences in crafting the narration, as well; as a teenager, Bemelmans was involved in an altercation at his uncle's hotel in Germany, resulting in him being sent to a reform school in America, as punishment. (Bemelmans provided details on this incident to The New York Times in 1941, if you care to learn the story from the man himself).

Today, eighty years after its initial publication, the world of Madeline continues to enchant readers, young and old alike – and these illustrations mark where the story all began.

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