‘Struggling artist” was not a term Leonard Weisgard ever struggled with much himself.
The celebrated children’s book artist and writer, whose work appeared in some 200 books and publications during a nearly six-decade career, sold illustrations to magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar when he was still in college, and he was just 21 when the New Yorker accepted his first magazine cover, in 1937. By 1947, at age 30, he’d already won a Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious award in the United States for children’s picture books.
But aside from his early and sustained success, Weisgard, born 100 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, is recognized in particular for embracing modernism in his work — using a lively palette of both colors and images that would leave the interpretation of a picture book to children, in turn making them more engaged in the story.
Weisgard, who died in his adopted home of Denmark in 2000, did some of his most significant work with Margaret Wise Brown, author of the seminal 1947 picture book “Goodnight Moon.” Together, the two friends and collaborators would rewrite the existing formula for children’s books, replacing what they saw as sentimental realism with more playful, semi-abstract images and ideas that they believed spoke to children’s innate curiosity about the world.
To recognize the centennial of Weisgard’s birth, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst has opened an exhibit devoted to his work. The show, which runs through June 5, features 90 pieces from every stage of his career.
What’s more, the museum has forged a partnership with Weisgard’s three children — Abigail, Christina and Ethan — and restored 20 of the artist’s pieces that had been damaged during prolonged storage. Those pieces are now part of the show. Weisgard’s children have donated 125 additional works by their father that will also be restored, in part through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
“He was such an original,” said Leonard S. Marcus, the exhibit’s curator and the author of numerous books about children’s literature and writers, including a biography of Margaret Wise Brown. “He fused different influences and his own ideas to create a very distinctive style that was full of energy.”
Marcus made his comments at a recent opening reception at the Carle for the Weisgard exhibit, where he was joined by the artist’s children, who had flown in from Denmark. Abigail “Abby” Weisgard, the oldest, said she was thrilled to be there, looking at works by her father that she hadn’t seen in years.
“I have to tell myself to slow down and take it a little easy,” she said with a laugh, her hand on her chest. “My heart is just thumping.”The early years
As the exhibit outlines, Weisgard showed an interest in art from an early age. His first artistic experience, he once said, was “to let paint drip down the side of milk bottles and watch the emerging patterns as the different colors overlapped.”
In a catalog that accompanies the exhibit, Marcus writes that Weisgard spent years in an after-school arts and crafts club in New York City, where he grew up, and often wondered “why the pictures in his school textbooks had so little color when the world had so much.”
Weisgard actually originally aspired to become a dancer, particularly after meeting legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham when he was a teen. But after a leg injury, he switched to a teacher-training program in art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
As the exhibit shows, even during his time at the Pratt, when he enjoyed his first commercial success (he also published a picture book, “Suki, the Siamese Pussy,” in 1937), Weisgard was experimenting with modernist images and themes in his art. Marcus said he was influenced by artists like Vladimir Lebedev, a Russian painter and illustrator whose work on children’s books in the early years of the Soviet Union incorporated bold colors and semi-abstract figures.
In Brown, whom he met in 1938, Weisgard found a kindred spirit. A poet and children’s author, Brown had also trained as a teacher at the progressive Bank Street School in New York, where researchers believed young children were more interested in “here and now” stories — books that reflected their experiences in the real world — than in the proverbial “once upon a time” variety.
With that in mind, Brown and Weisgard began a close collaboration, publishing their first title, “The Noisy Book,” in 1939. The Carle exhibit includes examples from that work and several of the two dozen other books the two did together, including a number of sequels to “The Noisy Book,” in which Brown’s text invited children to mimic everyday sounds around them, while Weisgard sketched a variety of images to symbolize those sounds.
In books like “Red Light, Green Light,” Weisgard also examined the contrast between country and city, with lively, semi-abstract figures and shapes, like a horse and cart on a dirt road and a blocky automobile on a connecting paved road. In one image from “Red Light, Green Light,” sculpted hills, devoid of tree cover, march across the background, lending just a hint of fantasy to the landscape.
Weisgard used a variety of mediums in his work — watercolor, pen and ink, gouache, acrylic paint, egg tempera — and his colors could be rich indeed, notably in his renditions of classic children’s tales. His work in a 1949 edition of “Alice in Wonderland,” for instance, offers lush, collage-like scenes; Weisgard said he was aiming for “a special dreamlike glow” that would bring something new to this well-known story.
That same glow radiates from many of Weisgard’s pictures of nature; exhibit notes say both he and Brown shared a “spirited regard” for the natural world, one they wanted to share with children. The two friends hit just that note in “The Little Island,” written by Brown under a pseudonym, Golden Macdonald, and illustrated by Weisgard after he spent several days with Brown on her island retreat off the coast of Maine. The book won the Caldecott Medal in 1947.
Weisgard also designed sets and costumes for theatrical productions, and he mentored a young children’s illustrator similarly interested in natural settings: Maurice Sendak, of “Where the Wild Things Are” fame. In turn, Sendak’s famous book was inspired by a mural of friendly critters Weisgard had painted in his son’s bedroom.Inspired by folk art
Weisgard, who in the 1950s moved to Connecticut with his wife, Phyllis Monnot, and young family, also developed an extensive collection of American folk art, from which he drew additional inspiration for his drawings (a few of those works are in the show). Weisgard’s interest in folk art, Marcus said, “was not usual for people in the art movement,” but it spoke to Weisgard’s appreciation of simplicity and stability, he added.
The family moved to Denmark in 1970, in part because of Weisgard’s disillusionment with the Vietnam War. Abby Weisgard said her family had also been invited to come there by a Swedish and Danish couple they had met and befriended during a boat tour of canals in Holland and France in the early 1960s.
“My father sold off almost the whole collection [of folk art] before we moved,” she said. “Then he began buying Danish arts and crafts after we’d relocated, and he sent his work to the U.S. by mail. … We all came to love living in Denmark.”
They also entertained visitors from the U.S. such as Marcus, who met with Weisgard in the 1980s when he was researching a book. They all stayed in touch, so that when Weisgard died in 2000, leaving behind 13 steamer trunks worth of art, notes and manuscripts, it was to Marcus that the family turned to sort through the work and figure out what to do with it — leading in turn to the Carle exhibit.
Ellen Keiter, the museum’s chief curator, said the Carle is deeply grateful for the family’s gift, given it highlights the “extraordinary collaboration” of Brown and Weisgard, two “titans of 20th-century children’s literature. … We are honored to preserve Weisgard’s legacy.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Magician of the Modern: The Art of Leonard Weisgard” is on view through June 5 at the Eric Carle Museum, 125 West Bay Road in Amherst. Museum hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For information, visit www.carlemuseum.org.