Still Hot

Maurice Sendak’s ageless imagination

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, 1963, watercolor on board, 9 3⁄4 × 11". © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

WILD THINGS ARE HAPPENING: THE ART OF MAURICE SENDAK. Edited by Jonathan Weinberg. Delmonico Books/The Columbus Museum of Art, 2022. 248 pages.

THE FRONT AND BACK ENDPAPERS of Maurice Sendak’s perennially beloved 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are are covered in subdued bursts of foliage in yellow, blue, green, orange, and brown. The thicket of leafy plants is overlaid by a loose grid of hatch marks that have always made me think of the fine mesh of a window screen. The reader’s face looms just before the screen, with only a view of the semi-exotic jungle beyond, but it’s a view ripe for an adventurous daydream about a fantastical elsewhere—a place to escape to, from the safety of the window.

Those endpapers take up the same position in the catalogue that accompanies the Columbus Museum of Art’s exhibition “Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak,” the first retrospective of Sendak’s work since his death, in 2012. A central aspect of the exhibition is Sendak’s relationship with art history and music. Sendak’s body of work—which includes drawings, book design, paintings, advertising, theatrical sets and costumes, and puppetry—erases the carefully maintained divide between illustration and fine art. The exhibition makes the convincing case that his output draws from both realms and that his art is simply that: art. “They’re all good friends,” Sendak said of the pieces that populated his home and fed his work.

This room is full of George Stubbs, who’s one of my great heroes. It’s all work largely from the end of the eighteenth century, which is my favorite. It’s the Mozartian time, one of the greatest flurries of artistic activity in history. There’s William Blake stuffed into bookcases. There’s Stubbs, there’s Fuseli, there’s Mozart. This keeps me going.

He absorbed the lessons and visual cues of his “friends” completely, yet applied them always in his own hand and according to the style that best fit his subject. The vegetal abundance in the endpapers of Where the Wild Things Are appears throughout Sendak’s illustrative work. For instance, he remade the jumbo flora depicted in the etchings of the early-nineteenth-century German artist Carl Wilhelm Kolbe for the otherworldy gardens of Dear Mili (1988), an adaptation of a dark tale by Wilhelm Grimm, where even the explosions of war resemble giant sunflower heads. The catalogue presents an astonishing comparison of Andrea Mantegna’s Descent into Limbo, ca. 1497, and a drawing from Sendak’s We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), a book inspired in part by seeing unhoused children in Los Angeles. Sendak’s last published work, the elegiac and tender My Brother’s Book (2013), rejoices in William Blake’s operatic and visionary illuminated manuscripts.

Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen, watercolor and ink on paper as printed in color in Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

In the Night Kitchen (1970) is a frank homage, in form and content, to Winsor McCay’s broadsheet comic Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–14). But buried within the art of the book are small tributes to other heroes. Amid the baker’s ingredients is a bag of Hosmer’s Free-Running Sugar, a wink to puppeteer and historian Herbert Hosmer, Jr. (1913–1995), who amassed an astounding collection of nineteenth-century children’s books and toys, including his ancestor’s 1840 American reissue of The Remarkable History of Chicken Little. A line of tiny text on the sugar’s packaging bears the words “Chicken Little,” as well as “Nemo.” Similarly, in a 1988 poster for the defunct fair New York Is Book Country, Sendak embeds the names O’Malley, Kleist, and Melville into the city’s signage: O’Malley, the fairy godfather in Barnaby (1942–52), the comic by Sendak’s early mentor Crockett Johnson; the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, whose 1808 play Penthesilea Sendak illustrated; and Herman Melville, whose Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (1852) Sendak illustrated from figure studies taken by the photographer John Dugdale.

Maurice Sendak, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, 1962, watercolor on paper, 7 3⁄4 × 9 3/8". © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

So thoroughgoing is Sendak’s synthesis of his influences that I began seeing what are perhaps unintentional references in his work. In his essay for the catalogue, Thomas Crow wonderfully characterizes Sendak’s art in Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962), written by Charlotte Zolotow, as “melting watercolors.” The book depicts an endless spring reverie in which the light and landscape, rendered in a pastel palette, are dreamily indeterminate. The story could be set in one of Monet’s paintings of his gardens, which he suffused with a consistent light to render what he termed “instantaneity.” Time in Mr. Rabbit is fugitive, as the title’s double meaning suggests: The moment at hand is endless, and Sendak and Zolotow are in no hurry to resolve the characters’ ramble through meadows and woods.

In Outside Over There (1981), on the page where Sendak’s heroine, Ida, resolves to rescue her sister, I can see the stiff flourish of The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, as if Jacques-Louis David had combined his four masculine subjects into the solitary figure of a determined girl. (Though best known for the stubborn, wayward Max of Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak introduced several excellent girls into the literary pantheon—among them, the conflicted, strapping Ida and, earlier, the indomitable Rosie, from The Sign on Rosie’s Door [1960]. The former brought him “a flurry of letters” from girls expressing gratitude that their hostility toward their siblings had finally been recognized. “They didn’t know it was permissible emotionally and psychologically to have this rage,” Sendak recalled in 1994.)

Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There, 1980, watercolor on paper, 13 3/8 × 13 1⁄4". © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

Sunflowers also appear in this book, peering into the nursery through an open window—“an accusing Greek chorus,” as Crow puts it. Outside Over There is a symphony of homages: visually to the German Romantics Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich, thematically to Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791). The book also incorporates details from Renaissance art, in particular Ida’s borrowed raincoat, whose “virtuoso cadenzas of elaborate drapery,” as Crow writes, would be at home in work by Titian or Michelangelo. Combined on a single page, these elements produce “the layered intimacy of an opera scenario in a single tableau.”

Music was an essential ingredient in Sendak’s creative process. “The work can’t happen without music,” he said in 1994. “I think everything I’ve done is a collaboration with a composer.” The catalogue contains a selection of Sendak’s “fantasy sketches,” each page a mini-drama with four to six rows of small black-pen line drawings moving from left to right—a wordless comic strip whose silent progression on the page has the feel of experimental musical notation. In fact, Sendak composed these pages while listening to music (such as Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” and Deems Taylor’s “Through the Looking Glass”)—the “catalyst,” he said, “that brought them to life [and] kept my pen moving across the paper.”

Maurice Sendak, Fantasy Sketch: Through the Looking Glass—Deems Taylor, 1957, ink on paper, 10 × 7 5/8". © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

When Sendak received the Caldecott Medal in 1964, for Where the Wild Things Are, he evoked the award’s namesake, the nineteenth-century British illustrator Randolph Caldecott, and his popular book The Three Jovial Huntsmen (1880):

There is no emasculation of truth in his world. It is a green, vigorous world rendered faithfully and honestly in shades of dark and light, a world where the tragic and the joyful coexist, the one coloring the other. It encompasses three slaphappy huntsmen, as well as the ironic death of a mad, misunderstood dog; it allows for country lads and lasses flirting and dancing round the Maypole, as well as Baby Bunting’s startled realization that her rabbit skin came from a creature that was once alive.

Maurice Sendak, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life, 1967, ink on paper, 11 1/2 × 9". © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

The qualities Sendak sees in Caldecott’s work—seriousness and play, certainty and fancy, innocence and experience, and, above all, truthfulness—are those that animate his own. Sendak was forthright about his desire to tell children the truth about the world in which they live. To do so, he tapped into what he called “the emotion memory” of childhood, “its stress and urgency.” He identified the writer Ruth Krauss, with whom he collaborated on several books, as “the first to turn children’s language, concepts, and tough little pragmatic thinking into art.” Sendak accomplished the same translation visually, and his blending of a child’s perspective with the visual vocabulary of “grown-up” fine art not only reveals his faith in a child’s ability to deal with complex material, but may also have some bearing on the longevity of his books’ appeal—that is, why we continue to love them even after we have left our childhoods behind. As Sendak told Stephen Colbert in 2012, “I don’t write for children. I write.” (Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, another of Sendak’s heroes, expressed a strikingly similar sentiment: “I don’t write for children, I write for people.”)

In Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life (1967), the discontented dog Jennie sets out from home to see what adventures await. Realizing she would like to become the leading lady of the World Mother Goose Theatre, she is told that she needs experience and must gain it by the first night of the full moon. And she does, through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings, and good luck. The full moon that then comes into view turns out to be a woman, and not just any woman, but Mother Goose herself, an embodiment of a child’s earliest stories, or, following the logic of Sendak’s tale, a child’s first adventure. And there’s no safer adventure than one taken between the covers of a book.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, Endpaper, 1963, ink and watercolor on paper, 10 × 22". © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.