The creation of Babar, the protagonist of a family bedtime story that began one of the most successful children’s series of all time, is the focus of a new exhibition on view only at the Morgan Library & Museum from Sept. 19, 2008, through Jan. 4, 2009. Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors includes approximately 175 works, with manuscript drafts, sketches, and watercolors for the first book by each of Babar’s two authors, father and son Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff. The exhibition explores the working methods of these two men, who, 15 years and a generation apart, created an iconic fictional character, French in style but universal in spirit, whose green suit and yellow crown have become recognizable to children and adults throughout the world.
Drawing Babar features a series of drawings and manuscript material, including nearly all surviving working drafts for Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, 1931), the first book by Jean de Brunhoff (1899-1937), and for Babar et ce coquin d’Arthur (Babar’s Cousin: That Rascal Arthur, 1946), the first book written and illustrated by Laurent de Brunhoff.
A highlight of the exhibition is Jean de Brunhoff’s maquette for Histoire de Babar, a small illustrated booklet that he made at the midpoint of his composition process. Due to its format, however, only a portion of the work can be displayed. All pages of the maquette are shown in an accompanying digital facsimile, providing the public with full access for the first time. A comparison of the maquette with the published version of Histoire de Babar reveals changes, both subtle and substantive, that Jean de Brunhoff made to the text and images as he refined his work.
“The universality of Babar is such that we forget the character rose from a blank sheet of paper as an artistic and literary creation,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “To see the process of inventing Babar at its earliest stages is truly marvelous, and all who tour this exhibition will forever view this familiar figure in a new light.”
“The Story of Babar has found its final home in a city far from Celesteville and far from Paris but where we think Babar will feel very comfortable,” said Laurent de Brunhoff, speaking of the gift to the Morgan that he and his brothers, Mathieu and Thierry, made of a portion of Jean de Brunhoff’s work. “Since I came to live in America in 1985 and got to know its cultural institutions, The Morgan Library & Museum, with its extraordinary collection of manuscripts and materials focused on the history of the book, has seemed the right place for The Story of Babar. The gift is an expression of my love for and an act of homage to my father.”
THE ORIGINS OF BABAR
The Babar series is the story of an orphaned baby elephant who has adventures in civilization and returns to the great forest to become king of the elephants. Whether he is in the big city, at home in Celesteville, or on a journey to a far-off land, Babar’s story is anchored in family connections. The creation of the Babar series, too, is a family story.
One evening in 1930 Cécile de Brunhoff invented a story about an unnamed little elephant for her sons Laurent and Mathieu. Her husband, Jean de Brunhoff, an accomplished painter who had never before written or illustrated a children’s book, expanded, illustrated, and published the tale in 1931 as Histoire de Babar.
Jean de Brunhoff’s elegant story, told in simple prose and clear, lush images, was embraced by French readers and was translated into English in 1933. In six sequels written before his untimely death at the age of 37, he continued the story of the good-hearted elephant who lives well, rules benevolently, and does his best to be a good father. The exhibition includes first editions of all seven of Jean’s books as well as manuscript drafts and watercolors.
Jean’s eldest son, Laurent, an abstract painter, took up the story just after World War II, publishing Babar et ce coquin d’Arthur at the age of 21. Laurent’s final illustrations looked much like those of his father, but the exhibition reveals a very different creative process. Jean developed text and pictures concurrently at every phase of the composition, sketching in pencil and adding color only in the final stages. Laurent, by contrast, produced explosive swaths of color over the barest hint of graphite, incorporating text only after he had resolved his illustrations. Since Babar et ce coquin d’Arthur, Laurent de Brunhoff has produced 36 additional books about Babar and his family and friends.
For more information and other related exhibition programs, call 212-590-0333 or visit www.themorgan.org.