Penn Libraries exhibit spotlights Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of ‘Madeline’ books

Ludwig Bemelmans may be best known for his classic series of “Madeline” children’s books, but a new Penn Libraries exhibit shines a light on his multi-faceted career that includes fiction and non-fiction books for adults, as well as advertising and magazine illustrations.

The exhibit, “Covered with Vines: The Many Talents of Ludwig Bemelmans,” features books, manuscripts, and art based on the private collection of Jean Kislak, a “Madeline” enthusiast, and Penn’s Bemelmans collections.

Kislak and her husband Jay are the donors for whom Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts is named.

First published in 1939, the “Madeline” stories take place in a Catholic boarding school in Paris, with tales of the adventures of a gritty 7-year-old girl who rides horses through London, rescues dogs, and walks on a bridge railing along the Seine and falls into the water.

Bemelmans’ hand-drawn mock-up of his first “Madeline” book, a time during which he was still making changes to the characters, is featured in the exhibit.

“He’s changing Madame Severine to Miss Clavel during the course of it,” says Daniel Traister, the exhibit curator. “Madeline is sometimes spelled Madeleine and sometimes Madeline.”

Bemelmans’ work in books for adults was much more serious and, at times, risqué.

“There are some really difficult topics that he tackles and some not-nice people that he illustrates or writes about, in stark contrast to what the children’s books do,” says Andrea Gottschalk, exhibition designer and coordinator at the Kislak Center. 

As a magazine illustrator, Bemelmans was prolific, producing more than 30 covers for the New Yorker. Some of the magazine covers, along with a Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog cover and a McCall’s Christmas book, are also featured in the exhibit.

“Covered with Vines: The Many Talents of Ludwig Bemelmans” is on display in the Goldstein Family Gallery on the 6th floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center through Dec. 21. The Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. A photo ID is required to enter Van Pelt.