The Art of Babar – The New York Times

Like his father, Jean, Laurent de Brunhoff trained to be a painter. He studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse and began making and exhibiting abstract work in oils. But at 21, nine years after his father’s death, he decided to carry on the adventures of Babar, his father’s creation, and from then on considered the Babar books his principal artwork.

Mr. de Brunhoff was a master of color and line. When he conceived his stories, he began with an image. If Babar were abducted by aliens, or practiced yoga, what might that look like? He sketched first in pencil, then watercolors, creating dozens of pictures before settling on a final illustration. Each composition advances the story but can also stand alone as a carefully composed painting.

“Babar,” Maurice Sendak said, “is at the very heart of my conception of what turns a picture book into a work of art.”
— Penelope Green

“Babar Comes to America” was published in 1965. In this sketch for the book, in which Babar visits that particularly American space, a supermarket, Mr. de Brunhoff made sure to include American brands of the period like Kellogg’s, Heinz and Del Monte. Babar has a bit of trouble navigating the aisles with his shopping cart and causes a traffic jam.

In “Babar’s Little Girl” (1990), Babar and Celeste have their fourth child, Isabelle, after 50 years of marriage. Mr. de Brunhoff had just moved to Connecticut to be with Phyllis Rose, his second wife, and, as he explained, “We let Babar and Celeste have a baby instead of us.” (Ms. Rose, with a pillow stuffed under her shirt, was the model for the pregnant Celeste.)

The vibrant lobster above is an illustration for the color red, from “Babar’s Book of Color” (2004). At right is a scene from “Babar’s Celesteville Games” (2011). (Mr. de Brunhoff had wondered what it might be like if the elephants had their own Olympics.) During the games, Babar’s daughter Flora falls in love with a handsome pole-vaulter named Cory. They take their honeymoon by air, held aloft by a flock of brilliantly colored birds.

In “Babar’s Rescue” (2004), Babar is kidnapped by mysterious striped elephants. In this sketch his youngest daughter, Isabelle, sets off to find him.

Babar’s son Alexander drinks a shrinking potion in “Babar and the Succotash Bird” (2000). The magic bird’s name is a nice coda for Mr. de Brunhoff’s worldview: “Succotash!” the bird tells Alexander. “That is how life is — right mixed with wrong.”

Above, studies for “Babar’s Rescue” and “Babar Visits Another Planet” (2003), in which Babar and his family are abducted by what turn out to be a bunch of fun-loving aliens. Below, cozy domesticity in “Babar and his Family” (2012).

“Babar and I both enjoy a friendly family life,” Mr. de Brunhoff wrote in 1987. “When writing a book, my intention is to entertain, not give a ‘message.’ But still one can, of course, say there is a message in the Babar books, a message of nonviolence.”

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