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  • Louise Fitzhugh, Marisol, and the Realm of Art
  • J. D. Stahl (bio)

Louise Fitzhugh was a noteworthy graphic artist as well as an influential writer for children. Her artistic ambitions were expressed at least as much, if not more, through painting as in the books she is far better known for today. Though her paintings are not presently available to the public, we can understand Fitzhugh's literary art better by examining her attitudes toward art as revealed in the context in which she painted as well as by taking a closer look at her children's book illustrations. A striking clue to these attitudes can be found in the as-yet unnoticed resemblance between the startling sculpture of a huge wooden baby described in Harriet the Spy (1964) and the distinguished Venezuelan-American artist Marisol's sculpture Baby Girl (1963; see fig. 1). The sculpture and the reactions to it within Harriet the Spy as well as the artwork, artist, and milieu referred to represent Fitzhugh's views of art and its role in life, views apparent in her other children's works, which are currently the only access we have to Fitzhugh's attitudes.1

Fitzhugh's commentary about art and its relationship to wealth is most maliciously pointed in her portrait of the utterly self-absorbed and materialistic couple of Harriet the Spy, the Robinsons, and it contains a sly reference to an artwork Fitzhugh almost certainly saw exhibited in a New York gallery or at the Museum of Modern Art in 1963.2 The sculpture Fitzhugh alludes to is a work by the Paris-born artist Marisol Escobar, known usually as Marisol. The work is an immense sculpture of a baby. The original, titled Baby Girl and about six feet in height, is now located at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. In chapter eight of Harriet the Spy, Harriet notices that the Robinsons have had an immense crate delivered to their house, and, in great suspense, she watches to see what that crate contains. It is a work of art,

the strangest thing Harriet had ever seen. It was an enormous—but enormous—perhaps six feet high—wooden sculpture of a fat, petulant, rather unattractive baby. The baby wore a baby cap, huge white dress, and baby booties. The head was completely round and carved out of a butcher's block so that it resembled a beautifully grained newel post with a face carved in it. The baby sat on its diapered bottom, feet straight out ahead, and fat arms curving into fatter hands which held, surprisingly, a tiny mother.

(157)

This satirical sculpture, which reverses the relationship of parent to child, is symbolically the "perfect child" the Robinsons can never have in reality. Harriet has concluded, much earlier, that the Robinsons have only one problem: "They thought they were perfect" (66), and after observing the Robinsons showing off their possessions to their guests, Harriet writes, "IF THEY HAD A BABY IT WOULD LAUGH IN ITS HEAD ALL THE TIME AT THEM SO IT'S A GOOD THING THEY DON'T. ALSO IT MIGHT NOT BE PERFECT. THEN THEY MIGHT KILL IT. I'M GLAD I'M NOT PERFECT" (68). For Fitzhugh, as for Harriet, the idea of perfection in a child or a work of art was the height of absurdity.

The monumentality of the sculpture of the baby resembles the styles of several New York artists with whom Fitzhugh is likely to have been familiar. The infant's fatness suggests the sculptures and paintings of Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist who had his first New York exhibition in 1962 at The Contemporaries Gallery on Madison Avenue. His version of Madonna and Child, with self-portrait of the artist, displays his characteristic monumentality.3 But the use of butcher's block mentioned by Fitzhugh is typical of the work of Marisol, who was also living and working in New York at the time. An article in the Buffalo Evening News in April of 1964 on the occasion of Seymour Knox's donation of the sculpture Baby Girl to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery noted that "Marisol nails and glues wooden planks...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 159-165
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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