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A Sendakian Sampler: Drawings A to Z at The Rosenbach


Sendak. All Rights Reserved.

What began as a passion for creating toys with his brother, a love for early 19th century British illustrators and an ability to capture a child’s imagination with paper and pen, would eventually turn into life long adventure of illustration for Maurice Sendak, one of the most well know illustrators of contemporary children’s books.

The Rosenbach Museum and Library, known for holding one of the most expansive collections of “Sendakiana,” has yet again created an exhibit that offers a unique perspective of Sendak’s work in A Sendakian Sampler: Drawings A to Z. After helping to create a handful of exhibits dedicated to Sendak, Karen Schoenewaldt, museum registrar at the Rosenbach, applied her expert knowledge of Sendak’s work and passion for language when curating this exhibit, which “features an informal survey of Sendak’s art, arranged alphabetically and organized by twenty-six different themes from A to Z, cataloguing the wide scope of the artist and illustrator’s work” between 1951 and 2003. Each letter is represented by a word, which is accompanied by handful of carefully selected illustrations that shed light on the themed word. The combination of carefully chosen words with Sendak’s array of illustrations, adds a thoughtful new dimension to his artwork, highlighting themes and topics that were the common threads binding his work together throughout the years.


To call this exhibit expansive is quite an understatement, as it features artwork from almost all 80 books in the Rosenbach’s Sendak collection, and moves beyond the final pen and ink drawings to highlight dummy books (miniature books created as blueprints for final versions), pencil sketches and tracing paper versions. Through early illustrations, viewers are offered a behind-the-scenes look at the attention to detail and thoughtful imagination that Sendak was creating. You are not just witnessing a blueprint of a book, but rather Sendak's raw, authentic creative thought as it took shape. Beyond the progression of early thought to final drawing, this exhibit also sheds light on the fact that Sendak, “deliberately worked with different media in different books,” added Schoenewaldt, as he was inspired by 19th century British illustrators and comic books. Take a closer look at his intricate pen and ink drawings that greatly contrast his more free form watercolor and crayon pieces.

Schoenewaldt’s selection of words that vary in complexity are apropos to Sendak’s content, as he worked with issues that addressed childish scenarios, such as eating chicken soup in Chicken Soup With Rice, to more serious issues such as the holocaust, alluded to in The Night Kitchen. Some words, like “dog kisses,” appeal to a childish vocabulary, while others are more advanced, such as Xenodochial (which she chose while perusing "the Oxford English dictionary and pulling out an obscure word”). Above all, Schoenewaldt selected words and illustrations that would best express Sendak’s point, “that you can’t hide fear and catastrophe from kids.” She added that his illustrations were “all about children and the world that they created.”

Treat your eyes to such rare pieces as a final drawing for Where the Wild Things Are, as the intricate details of pen and ink and elaborate shades of watercolor green bring Max and the monsters hanging from the tree to life. Or explore Sendak’s foreshadowed theme of “eco-friendly,” representing the letter E, which is paired with the final drawing of a boy riding an elaborately dressed elephant in Chicken Soup With Rice. And continuing with the theme of progressive thought, G is for “Girl Power, as Sendak “illustrated gender equality in children’s stories, ” notes Schoenewaldt. As you make your way through the alphabet and exhibit, you will experience a sense of growth not only in progressive thought, but also in the physicality of Sendak's work. His diminutive dummy books (that could fit in child’s palm), aptly paired with “Itsy-Bitsy,” were created “to plan layout and text.” One of these miniature creations on display, Where The Wild Horses Are would eventually transform into Where The Wild Things Are.

Sendak. All rights reserved.  As the show progresses and you return to favorite letter, word and piece of artwork, take note of that fact that the exhibit not only highlights the range of Sendak’s brilliant illustrations, but also sheds light on the concept that children should be exposed to the realities of the world. It seems as though this exhibit sheds light on Sendak’s central theme, to teach our children the true ways of the world just as much as we teach them the alphabet.

The exhibit concludes with the letter Z and the accompanied word "Zilch," although that is exactly the opposite of what you will take away from this experience. You might find that you are filled with a sense of childlike curiosity and a desire to delve into his work and search for his deeper meanings. If so, take a peek at the texts in The Rosenbach’s gift shop or wander down a few block to the Philadelphia City Institute brand of Philadelphia Free library, and peruse over 30 of Sendak’s books. Why not browse a few and read them under a tree in Rittenhouse Square (across the street from his branch), and let you mind wander and soar. I’m sure Sendak would approve.


A Sendakian Sampler: Drawings A to Z

Available Until Sunday the 6th

The Rosenbach Museum & Library

2008-2010 Delancey Place Philadelphia, PA

Open Tuesday through Sunday