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  • Aesthetic Distancing in Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline
  • Jacqueline F. Eastman (bio)

Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline (1939), a Caldecott Honor Book in the third year the award was given, has remained on the shelves for over half a century, continuing to garner new readers every year. Two years ago, Viking Penguin celebrated the book's fiftieth anniversary by issuing yet another edition, grouping a small format of Madeline with two of the sequels in a cardboard Madeline's House. Certainly the publisher's vigorous promotion of Madeline has contributed to the book's success, yet the pleasures of the work itself are the real justification for such marketing.1 For a young reader, one of the most satisfying of these delights is a pervasive sense of controlled danger—a tantalizing tension between the anarchical naughtiness of a supremely vulnerable heroine on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the order and sense of aesthetic distance implicit in such elements as rhymed couplets and the recurring image of "twelve little girls in two straight lines." Madeline's central crisis is as compelling as that of many fairy tales; the climactic rush to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy embodies two of childhood's most painful and frightening possibilities—separation from loved ones and a brush with death. Furthermore, Madeline, unlike other famous picture-book protagonists, such as Peter Rabbit, and her contemporaries, Ping and Ferdinand, has no biological parent close at hand. To alleviate the anxiety of such danger and emotional isolation, to make the story comfortably exciting rather than overwhelming, Bemelmans employs a variety of visual and verbal techniques to create a subtle yet pervasive consciousness of aesthetic distance.

As Bemelmans revealed in his 1954 Caldecott acceptance speech for Madeline's Rescue, Madeline's setting, characters, and plot have roots in his personal experience. Certainly his own and his mother's familiarity with boarding schools enhanced his understanding of [End Page 75] his heroine and inspired the story's most famous motif, the "two straight lines":

[Madeline's] beginnings can be traced to stories my mother told me of her life as a little girl in the convent of Altoetting in Bavaria. I visited this convent with her and saw the little beds in straight rows, and the long table with the washbasins at which the girls had brushed their teeth. I myself, as a small boy, had been sent to a boarding school in Rothenburg. We walked through that ancient town in two straight lines. I was the smallest one, but our arrangement was reversed. I walked ahead in the first row, not on the hand of Mademoiselle Clavel at the end of the column.


In 1938, only one year before Madeline's publication, during a summer sojourn on the Île d'Yeu, a chance encounter during a hospital stay after a cycling accident inspired the fuller development of both heroine and plot: "In the room across the hall was a little girl who had had an appendix operation, and, standing up in bed, with great pride she showed her scar to me" (257).3

In Madeline, Bemelmans' assimilation of Modernist aesthetic principles ultimately accounts for the highly personal, strongly patterned art generated by these personal experiences.4 The post-Impressionist movements leading to the early-twentieth-century experiments of Picasso, the Cubists, and the Fauves turned away from mimesis and toward autonomy. The work of art now insisted upon its independence from reality, upon the validity of its own formal structures, its own patterns of shapes and colors, and its manipulation of these as a means of expressing the artist's feelings about his subject. An anecdote about Matisse sums up the attitude: "When a lady visiting his studio said, 'But surely, the arm of this woman is much too long,' the artist replied politely, 'Madame, you are mistaken. This is not a woman, this is a picture'" (quoted in Gombrich 115). A corollary of this insistence upon the separateness of art soon emerged in examinations of the ontology of reality and illusion. For instance, in the years 1912-1914, Picasso explored this issue using a variety of techniques, including collage (thereby introducing into the picture actual fragments...