Our Paris holiday continues, and as the days have been so full, and exacting (I’ve worn through 2 pairs of shoes just walking the incredible stone streets of Paris in 3 1/2 weeks!), I’ve had little time to blog on some remarkable adventures. I hope to post a few more items this week. The other day, I discovered that at Musée des Arts Décoratifs (adjacent the Louvre) they were hosting a special exhibit to Babar, in celebration of his 80th birthday! As this blog is devoted to children’s literature in all its aspects, I thought it were be of interest to share what Katie and I learned on our visit.
What I didn’t know, was that Babar was actually the creation of Cécile de Brunhoff (wife of Jean), a pianist in Paris, who told her two sons a story of a little elephant whose mother is shot by hunters and moves to Paris. As Jean de Brunhoff was an artist, the boys asked their father to draw pictures of the elephant, and the story was born. Jean de Brunhoff’s uncles were publishers, and decided to print the books on the characteristic heavy stock paper, and in 1931 the books became an immediate success.
Jean de Brunhoff went on to write 6 more Babar books, but sadly, he died quite young, at the age of 37 of tuberculosis. So it was that his son Laurent, upon becoming an artist himself, decided to continue the marvelous stories of Babar, and he continues to this day.
One of the delightful aspects of the exhibit was seeing the original black and white drafts of the books, with either Jean’s or Laurent’s expert cursive penmanship neatly laid out on large graph paper. This was followed by the same page in full color with the printer’s markings for layout and so on. As a publisher, these initial drafts give me great pleasure, I’m not sure why, except that in seeing them, it brings to mind how each book is such an exacting work of attention to detail, careful craft and a bit of whimsy too. Here are two examples:
Our visit came full circle when we saw two beautiful illustrations that inserted Babar into the very stream of our cultural experience in Paris. The first was Laurent de Brunhoff’s depiction of Celeste as “Liberty Leading the People” the immortal work of Eugene Delacroix’s masterpiece (La Liberté guidant le peuple) which has so many reverberations of the human pursuit of liberty and justice. This is the classic “barricade” scene depicted so poignantly in Victor Hugo‘s Les Misérables and the young boy on the right may be the inspiration for the loveable character of Gavroche in the novel. Having just finished reading this wonderful work with the girls in preparation for our trip makes the painting all the more memorable. De Brunhoff’s work follows and invites the young child to join in the sentiment of the passion for liberty that is nascent in the heart of young children whether they can conceptualize it or not. Delacroix’s work was also the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty, the gift of France commemorating the friendship of the two countries in 1886.
And finally, as Katie and I have had the privilege of doing some research on Notre Dame de Paris, the Gothic cathedral at the center of so much of French history and culture, we were delighted to see that Babar also recognized the importance of this icon of French faith and devotion. Here Babar and his family visit Notre Dame from the vantage of the Pont de l’Archevêché, which we’ve enjoyed many times on our tramps around this wonderful City of Light! Hope you enjoy our travels with Babar and all! À bientôt“!