A 46-page mock up of children’s classic Madeline by artist-illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans created ca. 1938-39 brought $190,500 (including the buyer’s premium) in a July auction at Sotheby’s, substantially exceeding the pre-auction estimate of $80,000 to $120,000.
“This is the record for a work by Bemelmans in book form,” according to Adrienne DeGisi of Sotheby's press office. The watercolor wash cover of the feisty little redheaded girl whose adventures have delighted generations of young readers and the sketches with notes for the entire book, rendered a little larger than actual published size, came from the collection of noted Bemelmans enthusiast Jean Hart Kislak.
Kislak was a longtime patron of the University of Pennsylvania. The mock-up was previously exhibited at the Kislak Center for Special Collections as part of a Bemelmans show at Penn in 2015 and was accompanied by a catalog titled “Covered with Vines.” Kislak died in July 2022.
DeGisi pointed out that even higher prices were realized for original Bemelmans art work in a 2021 Sotheby’s sale. “The record for any work by Bemelmans,” she noted, “is for an original illustration ‘Madeline and the Bad Hat’ (“Pepito carried a bulging sack”) mixed media ca. 1957 which achieved $302,400 (estimate $40,000-$60,000). It sold at Sotheby’s in March 2021.
Also, a Bemelmans Illustration for “The High World” ca. 1954 achieved $201,600 in that same sale far exceeding the original estimate of $10,000-$15,000.
Ella Hall, 34, a specialist in Sotheby’s NY Rare Book and Manuscript Department, noted that prior to the recent sale, the Madeline maquette sold at auction in 2007 for $85,000. Hall attributed the increase to “a really great piece,” showing the beginning of Madeline in book form. It gives “a really delightful insight into his initial conception, complete with amendations, correction and changes.” There were several bidders, she said, adding the work was ultimately sold to a private American collector.
As for other pieces, especially art work, “There has been really good interest,” Hall commented, pointing out that “collecters of American fine art are starting to take notice.” The buzz, she speculated, could be helped along by the popularity of the Bemelmans mural on the walls of the bar at the Carlyle Hotel in NYC, where a new younger generation has enthusiastically embraced his work and nostalgia for the period it evokes. She mentioned that a number of other pieces from the Kislak collection were also offered at the July sale.
More than a childrens’ book illustrator
While many people are familiar with Bemelmans (1898-1962) as the creator of Madeline and the multiple related titles in that series, he was also the author and illustrator of a number of books for children including Hansi, Fifi, Parsley, Noodle and others.
“Throughout his life, Ludwig Bemelmans saw himself, first and foremost, as a painter, despite his considerable success at writing for both children and adults,” according to a biographical sketch posted on the website nocloo.com “He wrote short stories, novels, articles, essays, poetry, and reminiscences of all sorts, and he always wrote about what he saw— usually with great wit, charm, and honesty. He was forty-one years old when Madeline was published in 1939, but everything in the book was drawn from a child’s point of view—the enormously tall and energetic teacher Miss Clavel, the twelve identically shaped little girls, the color, splash, and joy of the streets of Paris. Best of all was the simplicity and directness of his line.”
Though Madeline went on to become a classic, the book world has not been as enthusiastic about Bemelmans many other volumes of fiction, essays, travel writing, or his sprightly memoirs of his life in the hotel trade produced in the early and mid-20th century.
A quick review of the last few years of auction results compiled by Rare Book Hub shows the prices for original artwork including drawings, watercolors and limited edition prints definitely on the rise, but his books, with the exception of the first edition of Madeline, and special limited editions of one or two other titles, get scant notice.
That’s truly a pity because he wrote and illustrated some wonderful books that are well worth reading (and collecting) today. This reporter’s personal favorites are his recollections of life behind the scenes in the world of fine hotels and restaurants. One of the best is Hotel Splendide (1941), still quite widely available. In the same vein, Small Beer (1939) and Hotel Bemelmans (1946) both showcase some of his most popular works. Also worth having is La Bonne Table (1964) a fat hardback anthology of some of his most memorable writing and personal sketches in categories including Behind the Scenes, At the Table, and Fancies.
Given the rise of the interest in books about food and beverage and chefs as celebrity figures, it would not be surprising if all of these volumes find a new and enthusiastic audience. Though the hardback firsts in good condition of all of his hotel and food writing have become progressively harder to find, most are widely and relatively inexpensively available in reprint or later issues.
For those looking for the ephemera (which by the way when Madeline related brings a fancy price) there are his magazine articles for Holiday in the 1950s, a wealth of cover art for the New Yorker, and a variety of other publications. Most of these are offered in the $30 to $50 price range and are of varying interest and merit.
It should be noted that a series of original illustrations for a 1956 Madeline related Holiday magazine piece in McCall’s sold at Swann Auction Galleries in 2017 for $75,000.
As for Bemelmans other work, especially his fiction, there’s lots of it, but it does not have the appeal of the personal narratives or the mass audience of his work for children, and seems unlikely to return to popularity as the 21st century rolls on.
RBH spoke with Daniel Traister, 81, retired curator at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries who curated a 2015 exhibition of Kislak’s Bemelmans collection and authored the catalog for the show, Covered With Vines, The Many Talents of Ludwig Bemelmans.
He commented that one reason for the increase in price is the growth in desirability of manuscript materials. Traister said the title of his catalog comes from the opening lines of Madeline…”In an old house in Paris all covered with vines”… but also indirectly alludes to his impression that publishers were reluctant to properly promote Bemelmans other writing for adults, which tended to be darker and more complex, for fear of damaging the author’s reputation as a beloved figure in the world of children’s literature. Or as he put it, "they didn't want to kill the cash cow."
Traister said that he read much of the author’s other work in preparation for the show. Some of the themes he identified were a consistent anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist viewpoint, and depictions of sexual relationships that were not widely acknowledged in the mid-1950s.
He mentioned To the One I Love Best (1955) as an example of his writing for adults that might appear to be in conflict with his work for young people. It is a memoir about Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe). DeWolfe was a lesbian and her husband, a British diplomat, was a gay man. He termed their relationship a “marriage of protection,” and the subject itself, "one that required self censorship,” by the author. "If you knew, you knew," he said.
“Covered with Vines, the Hidden Talents of Ludwig Bemelmans,” an exhibition catalog for the 2015 exhibition of the Jean Johnson Kislak Collection by Daniel Traister published by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Kislak Center Philadelphia, 2015. World Cat showed six copies, we did not find any copies offered for sale.
A short and interesting video featuring comments by curator Traister is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZK3s0VK9AE
Also of interest is Madeline at 75: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA: November 15, 2014 - February 22, 2015. Softcover, 40 pages, full color. Includes "The Smallest One Was Madeline: An Appreciation of Ludwig Bemelmans'' by guest curator Jane Bayard Curley and "Dear Ludwig Bemelmans: An Appreciation" by Maira Kalman.
A short video from the show is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBBzXJluDPE
While both of these catalogs seem in short supply Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator by John Bemelmans Marciano, Viking 1999 in both hard and soft cover editions, is definitely easier to find and less costly.
There was also a 2014 exhibit at the NY Historical Society commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Madeline. A video from that show can be viewed at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/madeline-the-everygirl-who-never-grows-old/
Reach RBH writer Susan Halas at email@example.com