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Visual Culture

Dr. Seuss’s Long-Lost Final Book Is about Art History

Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Theodor Seuss Geisel ("Dr. Seuss") in 1958. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Theodor Seuss Geisel ("Dr. Seuss") in 1958. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Six years ago, Audrey Geisel discovered a box in her home in La Jolla, California. It belonged to her late husband, Theodor, who was known affectionately by the world as his nom de plume, . Following his death in 1991, she had donated the bulk of his sketches, manuscripts, and other ephemera to the University of California, San Diego.
But Audrey had missed a box two decades earlier. There wasn’t a fox with this particular box, but there were two unfinished manuscripts for children’s stories. The first one, which was nearly completed, became the 2015 book What Pet Should I Get?; the other titled Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum, will be published this September by Random House. The book was illustrated by Australian author Andrew Joyner, based on Dr. Seuss’s text, sketches, and notes. It arrives 9 months after Audrey passed away at age 97.
It’s likely that this is the last book from the mind of Ted Geisel. Because he spent a lifetime as an artist—from his early years as a political cartoonist, to his celebrated children’s books, to his secret nighttime painting practice—it’s only fitting that this story is an art history lesson for young readers.
Publisher Cathy Goldsmith, who worked with Geisel on art direction for his last six books, said she was initially surprised to discover the manuscript was about a horse who guides children on a tour through an imaginary art museum, which only exhibits famous equine-based artworks. “Ted didn’t draw horses very often. He drew cats, he drew dogs, he drew cows,” she said. “[But] when you think about it, it makes perfect sense for this project.”
Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Horse Museum opens with the heady question: “Art. What’s it all about?” Geisel envisioned using horses as an entryway to introduce artistic interpretation; specific art movements; and the fundamental qualities of art, such as lines, colors, and materials. Horses, after all, have been a universal subject, spanning prehistoric cave art, antiquity, indigenous tapestry, European painting, early photography, and modern art.
The book deftly moves through the basics of art history movements. Examples include an ink study by printmaker —creator of the Great Wave (1830–32)—to showcase lines; Pegasi on an ancient Greek vase to explain symbols; and the emotional quality of paintings by and to sum up .
“When most people look at me, they just see me like this,” reads the text next to Joyner’s illustration of a simple brown horse. “But when an artist looks at me, they see a million other things. Can you?”
Many of the artworks featured were selected by Geisel. He detailed his manuscript with sketches and notes up to the section on modern art. Artwork featured in Horse Museum from after that period was selected by the editors.
Goldsmith believes that Geisel began the project in the mid-1950s. Around that time, he wrote and starred in a half-hour television special called Modern Art on Horseback, of which the footage is lost. He was also working on the story of a particularly famous anthropomorphized cat.
Finding an illustrator who could uphold Geisel’s vision was a unique task. Joyner, who is the illustrator for other Random House titles like The Hair Book and The Pink Hat, was selected for his visual style, sense of design, and attention to detail that all evoke the Seussian world. “He’s not imitating Dr. Seuss,” Goldsmith noted. “I thought it was brilliant the way that he constantly worked in little things into the artwork. There are places where the kids are drawing on the floor, for example, and what they’re doing looks a lot like a Seuss book.”
Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Goldsmith is the last person at Random House to have worked with Geisel while he was still living. In the late 1980s, she was asked to stay with him and Audrey in their home while he was ill to help him finish the color for Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990). She speaks to Geisel’s unparallelled sense of color and dry wit, recalling the time she inquired about the miniature lime tree growing in his yard. When she returned to New York, she received a jewelry box addressed to her. Inside was a single gem-colored lime, accompanied by a note: Goldsmith was entitled to one-third of his crop—the Cat in the Hat and Geisel himself had the other two, he wrote—and he suggested she use hers for a gin and tonic.
Goldsmith is part of a small group of people who saw both sides of Geisel’s art practice while he was still living. While she was in La Jolla, she saw what he called his “midnight paintings” and the whimsical, taxidermy-like sculptures hung around his home. After his death, she returned to help catalog and photograph the works for the posthumous book The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss (1995).
With his deep love for art and education, why didn’t Geisel publish Horse Museum during his lifetime? Goldsmith believes he was working on the manuscript just before he became a household name, when he was devoutly focused on his “Beginner Books” such as The Cat in the Hat and One Fish Two Fish. This project was probably pushed to the side and never realized—though he never threw it out. While there are still plenty of Dr. Seuss drawings and notes out there—preparatory sketches catalogued in the Geisel Library or a note about a gin and tonic privately tucked away—there are currently no other long-lost manuscripts known to his publishers. “I’m not aware of any complete books that are still left,” Goldsmith said. “But that’s not to say that one won’t turn up.”
Jacqui Palumbo is Artsy’s Senior Editor, Visual Culture.

Correction: An earlier version of this article spelled Geisel’s first name as Theodore, not Theodor. It also referred to the new book as“Horse Museum.” The book’s full title is“Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum.”