Art as an Expression of Innovation and Universal Appeal: The Illustrations of Robert McCloskey at the Museum of Fine Arts

“Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey” is a charming exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston celebrating American writer and illustrator Robert McCloskey (1914-2003). Opened to commemorate the 75th anniversary of his children’s book Make Way for Ducklings, and featuring the original illustrations from his eight of his beloved children’s books, the small-scale exhibit appeals to adults and children alike. The exhibit itself is highly interactive, featuring questions and coloring activities for a younger audience to ponder and peruse, informative captions detailing McCloskey’s biography and stylistic choices, and a selection of the artist’s books to view in full alongside the original illustrations. “Make Way for Ducklings” is open to the public at the Museum of Fine Arts until June 18, 2017, and is a truly joyous experience that all ages can appreciate.

As I stepped into the exhibit and began reading about McCloskey’s life and career, what fascinated me the most was that he initially intended to become a painter, and came across the illustration business almost by accident. While his paintings were highly skilled, he could never find the correct market for them, and was advised by friend and children’s book editor May Massee (1881-1966) to pursue a career in illustration instead (Museum Label for Artist, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 25 November 2016 – 18 June 2017). This small piece of advice launched an immensely successful career for McCloskey, resulting in eight acclaimed picture books and two Caldecott Medals. His works, whether they feature a boy’s life in small-town Ohio (Homer Price, published in 1951) or the tale of a family of ducks trying to make a suitable home for themselves (Make Way for Ducklings, published in 1941), are always innovative and artistically creative while still evoking endearing subject matter and overarching themes of family, togetherness, and small-town America. His skill at balancing those two expressions is, as I see it, the reason for his books’ fame and timelessness.

The interior room of the exhibit is a celebration of the book Make Way for Ducklings, even including a small-scale model of the eponymous bronze statue in Boston Public Garden (finished in 1987 by artist Nancy Schon), which was inspired by McCloskey’s book. The room includes the original drawings of each page of the book, which tell the story of a family of ducks that endures many trials and tribulations of finding a home (and receives the help of a policeman along the way) before settling down in Boston Common. McCloskey, in preparation for the final illustrations, studied with an ornithologist, visited the American Museum of Natural History to study mallard physiology, and even bought pet ducks so he could study their movements (Museum Label for Artist, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 25 November 2016 – 18 June 2017). The resulting illustrations exhibit a fine attention to detail and a beautiful use of perspective and aerial views.

Figure 1. Illustration from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, taken from the Spanish language version of the book (copyright 1996).

For example, in depicting the ducks flying above Louisburg Square in Beacon Hill, McCloskey painstakingly renders each feather and wing, and depicts movement as the wings appear to flap in flight (Figure 1). I love how miniature the cars, people, and even trees seem in comparison to the two ducks, and how the perspective has clearly been flipped to portray the ducks themselves as the protagonists in the story. McCloskey masterfully renders perspective yet again when policemen are directing traffic and diverting it away so that the ducks can safely cross the street (Figure 2). The illustrator takes an aerial perspective, rendering the cars as larger than life to emphasize the hustle and bustle of the scene, and the ducks as tiny dots on the page, small yet powerfully asserting themselves as they regally cross the street at the policemen’s command.

Each of McCloskey’s illustrations were a treat to behold, and an experience not to be missed. It is truly remarkable how well he wove together artistic finesse and universal themes in order to appeal to all ages, and essential to not miss out on this unique experience!

Figure 2. Illustration from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, taken from the Spanish language version of the book (copyright 1996).



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