Though born in Syracuse, New York, Carle moved to his father’s native Stuttgart when he was 6 years old, and spent his formative years in Nazi Germany.
Under the Third Reich, the only acceptable art was realistic and didactic, removed from the so-called “degenerate” trends of abstraction and Modernism. But, in an act of resistance, Carle’s high school art teacher invited the young creative to his home to show him illegal reproductions of
art. (In an homage to this pivotal experience, Carle later wrote the picture book The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse
(2011) about the
and the progressive power of art.)
Eager to return to the United States, Carle began working as a graphic designer for the New York Times in 1952, before being drafted into the army during the Korean War. About a decade later, Carle’s career took a turn. He designed a poster of a red lobster, an advertisement for a pharmaceutical company, which caught the attention of children’s author Bill Martin Jr. The writer commissioned him to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967), and the rest is history. From then on, Carle wrote and illustrated his own bedtime tales, including 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo (1968) and the fan-favorite The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969).
From Brown Bear
to today, Carle has maintained an instantly recognizable style of collage. He begins by painting white tissue paper with acrylic paint, and stores these swatches in color-coded drawers in his studio. He then cuts them to shape and layers the pieces to create grouchy ladybugs, purple cats, and beautiful butterflies. Carle loves that his signature technique is accessible. “In fact, some children have said to me, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” Carle said
. “I consider that the highest compliment.”
In 2002, Carle and his wife opened the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, which presents exhibitions on Beatrix Potter, E. H. Shepard, Ludwig Bemelmans, and Quentin Blake, among others.