Five decades have passed since readers first encountered Max, the wolf-suited boy who sailed away, started a wild rumpus with his beastly buddies, and made it back home in time for dinner. As the beloved hero of Where the Wild Things Are, Max joins the many other creations of children’s book artist Maurice Sendak in an exhibition that opens June 11 at the Society of Illustrators in New York.
Rare-book dealer Justin G. Schiller, who cocurated the show with Dennis M.V. David, met Sendak in 1967, and the two quickly bonded over their shared interest in children’s books, particularly the pop-up innovations of German illustrator Lothar Meggendorfer. “In those days, children’s books had been neglected in America, even though they were widely collected overseas,” says Schiller, who remained close with Sendak until his death last year at the age of 83. “Maurice appreciated not only the mechanisms that were created but also the quality of the art.”
The Brooklyn-born Sendak, who bypassed college for a job as a window dresser at F.A.O. Schwarz, credited 19th-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott as a primary influence on his art, along with Walt Disney films and poet William Blake. “Maurice studied the picture books of Caldecott, who had this potent way of creating movement, motion, and character in pictures,” Schiller says. Among the approximately 120 works in the show is Sendak’s original 1985 cover design for the Horn Book Magazine. It depicts Sendak as a “wild thing,” peeking over the shoulder of a sketching Caldecott and trying to mimic his technique.
The exhibition provides insights into Sendak’s own painstaking process through preparatory studies, etchings, and sketches, including several unused drawings for The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm, a two-volume set published in 1973. “When you go back and look at the published book, you realize that Maurice chose to illustrate another episode from the same story that does work better and is more memorable, but the preparatory image is in itself marvelous and incredibly detailed,” notes Schiller. “He never accepted shortcuts.”
“Many of his books had their origins in projects or discarded sketches going back 10 or 20 years,” adds children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus, who edited the accompanying catalogue, Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (Abrams). “These were stories that he was living with for a very long time.” Marcus singles out the importance of Sendak’s distinctively deliberate line in his drawings. “The theme of much of his work is the effort of children to maintain themselves in a largely hostile world, and you see that in the line that defines them,” he says. “They’re small but they’re solid.”