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Published: Wednesday July 9, 2014 MYT 6:45:00 PM
Updated: Wednesday July 9, 2014 MYT 7:24:21 AM

Bon anniversaire, Madeline! You're 75 years young!

A New York exhibition celebrates 75 years of Madeline, the eternally youthful and plucky Parisian schoolgirl created by Austrian-born author Ludwig Bemelmans.

Madeline, a series of illustrated children’s books detailing the adventures of its titular character and her schoolmates at a Paris boarding school, usually under the watchful eye of supervising nun Miss Clavel, was created 75 years ago and New York is marking the anniversary of the iconic character with a special exhibition.

Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans, which opens at the New-York Historical Society on July 4 and runs to Oct 19, chronicles the story of the red-haired Parisian girl from Bemelmans’ books, which have spawned dolls, a television series and a live-action film. "Madeline is one of the greats in the picture book world," Jane Bayard Curley, curator of the exhibition, said in an interview. "She is somebody who survives and thrives in the face of life’s troubles."

The first Madeline book, published in 1939. In all, Bemelmans wrote seven books featuring Madeline. The seventh, Madeline in America, was published in 1999, upon its discovery many years after his passing in 1962. He also published various other books, but Madeline was his most successful. Currently, the Madeline book series is continued by Bemelman's grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano.

More than 90 original artworks, including drawings and paintings, as well as menus, match books and one of the New York covers illustrated by Bemelmans, make up the exhibit, which is the first New York exhibit to recognise the artist's work since 1959. One of Curley’s favourite artefacts is the original manuscript of Madeline.

The show also recounts Bemelmans’ life in New York as a bon vivant, hotelier and artist. Born in 1898 to a Belgian father and German mother, Bemelmans spent his youth at a family hotel in the Austrian Tyrol and at his grandfather’s brewery in Regensburg, Germany. He was a failure academically and ran into trouble with the law. "He was a flop," said Curley. "His options were: Reform school in Germany or America. He chose America."

She's different from the rest. A page from the first book in the Madeline series paints the young girl as daring, feisty, and precocious — somewhat like her creator Ludwig Bemelmans, whose life was nothing if not colourful.

After passing through New York’s Ellis Island in 1914, he eventually found a job as a busboy at the city’s famed Ritz Hotel, where he worked for more than 15 years. Ambitious, enterprising and creative, Bemelmans had shpilkes, according to Curley, using the Yiddish word for impatience. Drawing upon the colourful characters he met through his day job, he later branched out as an illustrator.

In the summer of 1938, while on vacation with his wife, Madeleine, and daughter on a tiny island off the coast of France, he had a bicycle accident. While in hospital, he met a young girl recovering from an appendectomy. Inspired by his meeting with the young girl, he wrote and illustrated the story of Madeline upon his return to New York. Naming the character after his wife, he dropped the middle 'e', changing the pronunciation, because it was better for rhyming.

The Bemelmans at home: Ludwig Bemelmans (right) and his wife Madeleine. He named his creation after his wife, but dropped the middle 'e' as he found it easier to rhyme with. The inspiration for the character's feisty personality, however, came from meeting a young girl in a French hospital where he was recovering from a bicycle accident injury. Like Madeline in the first book, the real-life girl had her appendix removed. 

With World War II imploding in Europe, the tale of fearless Madeline and her boarding school companions gliding through the City of Light in "two straight lines" struck a chord on both sides of the Atlantic. "For me, Madeline is therapy in the dark hours," Bemelmans wrote. Readers loved the magical, whimsical rendering of Paris, which was then shrouded in war, according to Curley. Indeed, Madeline has found more success in America and elsewhere around the world than in France itself.

Organised by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, the exhibition also features the velvet hat that inspired the character of the mischievous Pepito, son of the Spanish ambassador. "While Madeline’s story is set in Paris, she is like many precocious New York City kids,” said Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Books, Frame Up, Books, Art, Frame Up, News, Madeline, Miss Clavel, Pepito, Ludwig Bemelmans, children's picture book, exhibition, retrospective, New York, Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans, 75th anniversary

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