Swiss-born Roger Duvoisin began his career as what might today be called a graphic or theatrical artist, crafting murals, posters, and stage scenery for the Geneva Opera Company; he then found work in France, in studios that specialized in ceramics and high-fashion textiles.
He came to the United States in the mid-to-late 1920s, hired as a textile designer for a New York-based fashion-silk goods company. In contrast to this sophisticated milieu, Duvoisin and his wife, Louise Fatio, settled on a farm in rural Gladstone, Somerset County, surrounded by animals, which would later become some of his favorite artistic inspirations.
Life was good, but then the road got bumpy, as the Great Depression hit the U.S., and the company that had lured Duvoisin to the U.S. went out of business.
In a classic life story of rebounding from bleak circumstances, Duvoisin began writing and drawing children’s books. His first was “A Little Boy Was Drawing,” something just to amuse his young son, or so he thought.
Instead, Duvoisin’s Matisse-inspired artworks and his gift for storytelling captured the attention of famed publisher Charles Scribner. “A Little Boy Was Drawing” was published in 1932, the first in some 140 books Duvoisin would create or co-create.
Now through June 26, 2016, the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick celebrates Duvoisin, with an exhibit of his original drawings. “Donkey-donkey, Petunia, and Other Pals: Drawings by Roger Duvoisin,” spans the acclaimed illustrator’s career, from “A Little Boy Was Drawing” to “The Happy Lioness,” published in 1980.
Curated by Marilyn Symmes, recently retired director of the Zimmerli’s Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts, who also held the position of curator of prints and drawings at the museum, the exhibit features nearly 40 works that serve as a narration of Duvoisin’s creative life.
“Donkey-donkey, Petunia, and Other Pals,” is on view, aptly enough, in the Roger Duvoisin Gallery.
“I think most of us start learning to read through looking at the visual art in children’s books,” Symmes says. “But it’s also a way to introduce younger audiences to art for the rest of their lives. A child’s first aesthetic experience often occurs with picture books, and Roger Duvoisin ranks among the most beloved illustrators in the field. So to have a gallery in his name, dedicated to picture books and their illustrations, seems natural.”
“Duvoisin created such memorable characters as Petunia the silly goose, Donkey-donkey, and Snowy the polar bear, who — like many of Duvoisin’s characters — teaches important lessons about believing in oneself and accepting others as they are,” Symmes adds.
While the exhibition and the gallery are very approachable for families with children, the Zimmerli Museum offers a variety of additional family-friendly activities, such as the “Studio Z” learning center, open throughout the day, for self-guided learning and creativity. An education space with activities designed for younger visitors, Studio Z’s computer terminal includes the Junior Curator program, which allows anyone to become a “curator” and organize Zimmerli artworks.
In addition, the Zimmerli offers “Passport to Art,” special events for families, every first Sunday of the month. The next “Passport to Art” is themed “Illusions of Space,” and will be held Sunday, December 6, 1 to 2:30 p.m. Children and parents, grandparents, or guardians, work side by side on arts and crafts projects during these interactive workshops, led by artist Basia Goszczynska. This quality time encourages families to enjoy creating together.
Perhaps by exploring and experimenting in art, young people may find themselves following in the footsteps of Duvoisin, who was himself from an artistically inclined family, actively encouraging and coaching young Roger in polishing his techniques.
His godmother was a noted enamel painter, who taught him how, among other things, to make the leaves on his trees look more realistic. And family stories recount how Duvoisin’s uncle had a special talent for drawing horses; he shared his expertise with the young artist, especially when it came to drawing hooves. Once this detail was refined, galloping horses became Duvoisin’s favorite subject to draw as a youth.
In his teen years he studied at the Ecole Nationale Superierure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris before embarking on his early career within the theater.
“Clearly (Duvoisin) had a deep understanding of arts materials, an amazing imagination, and an astonishing design sensibility, and he made it work on the small page of a book as opposed to the stage backdrop of an opera house,” Symmes says. “When you’re gifted in the arts, you can adapt and channel your creativity in different ways, which he clearly did.”
Even though Duvoisin brilliantly employs color, his works in black and white are also fascinating — his lines and singular style are that exceptional.
“Duvoisin was an admirer of Matisse, and you can see his affinities for simplification of line, so the line and the composition are understandable, whether it’s a barnyard, a lion at the zoo, a frog in its swamp setting, or a spider spinning a web,” Symmes says. “He could get to the essence of the story and character, and delineate them in a very engaging way. But he also showed tremendous sensitivity to color.”
“Also, with some of his illustrations, he used collage, for example, to create a grassy background in a swamp (scene),” Symmes adds.
“Donkey-donkey, Petunia, and Other Pals” also includes images from Duvoisin’s “White Snow, Bright Snow,” (D. Lothrop Company, 1947). With text by Alvin Tresselt, the book won the Caldecott Medal, which annually recognizes the most distinguished American illustrated books for children.
“The book depicts the anticipation throughout a community of a snowfall, which transforms the landscape, to the delight of parents and children,” Symmes says. “It’s so well-deserving of the Caldecott award. I think Duvoisin’s books are good for children, but also for many older readers, because the illustrations are truly captivating.”
Maybe because Duvoisin was surrounded by animals on his farm, he seems to have a special way of connecting with their personalities. The goose Petunia is quite prideful, for example — and who hasn’t laughed at swaggering geese with their beaks poked in the air?
“I do think he saw certain qualities in the animals, but he also embellished their personalities and made them more appealing because he understood children so well,” Symmes says. “Although Duvoisin also introduced children to nature in a more realistic way, through books like ‘The Web in the Grass,’ and ‘The Old Bullfrog,’ which were equally captivating, but more scientific and realistic.”
Whether representational or fanciful, Duvoisin’s books and the characters that inhabit them all express some kind of message, themes that resonate from generation to generation.
“’Donkey-donkey’ for example, is a delightful tale, introducing children to the idea that they should accept themselves for who they are,” Symmes says. “Along with their captivating images, Duvoisin’s books are wonderful in gearing messages (to children).”
“Another book of Duvoisin’s is ‘The Importance of Crocus,’ about Crocus, a crocodile who lives on a farm,” Symmes adds. “He can’t provide the farmer’s family with the same kind of goods that cows, sheep, etc. can, so Crocus feels inadequate. But when they build a pond, Crocus is the champion swimmer and can scare away the enemies of the farm. So where he had felt out of place, he now feels in place (and purposeful).”
Yet another universal theme can be found in Duvoisin’s “The Happy Lioness,” which was published the year he died.
“It’s the story of a devoted couple,” Symmes says. “The lion is one of the great attractions in the zoo, but when he is injured, his animal friends make a mane for the lioness so the people can come and enjoy her. It’s a sweet, endearing story which shows the idea of love and devoted partnership, helping out your partner. As with all of the Duvoisin books, the text and the illustrations are so engaging, what reader could not be enchanted by them?”
Symmes was reticent about the familial aspects of her childhood, saying, “I’ve always kept my personal life private — the real story is about the show.”
However, Symmes does say that she grew up in California, and her favorite children’s book character was Winnie the Pooh, from the classic series created by A.A. Milne.
She received her BA in art history from Stanford University and her MA in art history and museum practice from the University of Michigan. After college and graduate school, Symmes launched her curatorial career at the Smith College Museum of Art.
Symmes had been curator of prints and drawings at the Zimmerli Museum from 2006 until her retirement in October. Christine Giviskos, currently associate curator of prints and drawings, will assume the position in 2016.
Symmes was assisted in organizing the Duvoisin exhibit by Leeza Cinar, a Rutgers University undergraduate student assistant, and notes that “Donkey-donkey, Petunia, and Other Pals,” can only be viewed publicly on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. This is because of the fragile nature of these works on paper.
“We want to have a long-running show, but we have to be mindful of the conservation concerns of these works and limit their exposure to light,” she says, adding that “we have a display case on view which shows the process of how Duvoisin worked from a ‘dummy’ book and plotted things out.”
“We have the documentary example that shows how (it used to be done), how books came to be,” Symmes says. “Now, in the age of computers, that process is gone.”
Donkey-donkey, Petunia, and Other Pals: Drawings by Roger Duvoisin, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, June 26, 2016; special viewing schedule: Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Free. www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu or 848-932-7237.
For class or group tours, contact firstname.lastname@example.org at least two weeks in advance.
Passport to Art: First Sundays at the Zimmerli, interactive workshops for children and their parents/accompanying adults. December 6, 1 to 2:30 p.m. (Also February 7, March 6, and April 3. $5, members; $10, non-members. Advance registration required. E-mail email@example.com
Her many publications include the monograph “Dancing with the Dark: Joan Snyder Prints” (2011), and “Impressions of New York: Prints from the New York Historical Society” (2005), as well as many articles and catalogs on prints, drawings, and artist-illustrated books.
Prior to the Zimmerli, Symmes was with the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. She is currently secretary on the advisory board of New York’s Lower East Side Printshop, in addition to serving on the advisory board of the Brodsky Center at Rutgers University.
From 2012 to 2015 Symmes participated on the National Endowment for the Arts Indemnity Grants — International Advisory Panel, based in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the Roger Duvoisin exhibit, in 2015 Symmes curated “Vagabond Artist: George Overbury ‘Pop’ Hart in Tahiti, Mexico, and the Caribbean.” Last year she oversaw the exhibit “A Place in America: Celebrating the Legacy of Ralph and Barbara Voorhees,” featuring highlights in the Zimmerli’s collection of American prints and drawings. In 2010 she curated the noteworthy “Timeless, Still: Photographs from Muybridge to Warhol.”