In 1931, Cécile de Brunhoff charmed her children to sleep with the story of an orphan elephant turned king, who—thanks to de Brunhoff’s husband, an artist and book illustrator—has reigned over the pages of bedtime stories for the 82 years since. In watercolor and pencil drawings, Jean de Brunhoff sketched the fantastic world his wife described, where a young elephant escapes to the city, befriends a generous old lady, and, post-extravagant shopping spree, returns to the jungle cultured, educated, and dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, and is immediately crowned King. As the son and brother of prominent publishers, de Brunhoff was surrounded by family who quickly identified Babar’s publishing potential, and the rest was history.
After the first book, The Story of Babar, was published in 1931, de Brunhoff completed a total of six books before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 37, leaving one work unfinished. His son Laurent, though age 13 at the time, colored and designed the cover of his father’s seventh and final book. Maintaining a vivid memory of his father painting, at age 21, Laurent began to sketch—and publish—Babar books in the legacy of his father.
Fast forward to 2013: Over eight million Babar books have been sold, and recent exhibitions at Paris’s Musée des Arts Decoratifs and Bibliothèque Nationale and New York City’s Morgan Library have showcased original preparatory drawings, studies, and published watercolor illustrations from Babar books, by both father and son. This week, many of these works will be on view at The Salon: Art + Design fair in the booth of Mary Ryan Gallery, the exclusive representative for the original Babar art on behalf of Jean de Brunhoff’s estate. This exhibition marks the first time in 25 years that the gallery will make these illustrations publicly available—most Babar illustrations and manuscripts are in museum collections. Look to the margins of the drawings, and you’ll find scribbled notes, like “cover + title page” or “back cover”, revealing the earliest considerations in the minds of both Jean and Laurent and the intimate beginnings of Babar, the elephant king, whose reign seems to know no end.
All images courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery, New York
On view at Mary Ryan Gallery, The Salon: Art + Design 2013, Art, Booth B15, Nov. 14th – 18th.