It seems only fitting that Russian-born Princeton resident and renowned illustrator Gennady Spirin was born on Christmas Day – he is a dead ringer for Santa Claus. And one of his most popular books in the United States is E.T.A. Hoffman’s "The Nutcracker" (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1996). Saks Fifth Avenue was so taken with his work that the next year, in 1997, the store commissioned its own version from the artist for the New York’s stores holiday windows. And much of Spirin’s work – spectacularly detailed watercolors of fairy tale kings and snow-capped castles, knights on white horses and princesses with golden hair, which grace the pages of 33 children’s books – evokes the elegance and allure of Christmases gone by.
The onset of the holiday season seems the perfect time to view Spirin’s work. An exhibit of original artworks from over 12 of Spirin’s illustrated books – including "Simeon’s Gift" by Julie Andrews Edwards and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton (HarperCollins, 2003) – opens with a reception on Saturday, December 3, at the Artful Deposit Gallery, 201 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. The exhibit also includes a print of the portrait of Madonna, the singer, which she commissioned after she saw the art Spirin created for her book, "Yakov and the Seven Thieves" (Viking, 2004).
The event will include a booksigning of his newest book, "Apple Pie" (Philomel, 2005), an alphabet book inspired by a 17th century English rhyme with illustrations that depict life in English country homes of the Victorian era. Another booksigning is set for Saturday, December 17. The exhibit is on view through Tuesday, January 3.
Spirin, who was born in the small town of Orekhove-Zuyevo, near Moscow, on December 25, 1948, graduated from the Surikov School of Fine Art at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow’s Stroganov Institute of Art in 1972. He worked for the only children’s publisher in the Soviet Union for several years but – according to an article on Spirin in the New York Times published on the opening day of his first exhibit in Princeton at the Unicorn Gallery, December 7, 1997 – Spirin was "mysteriously dismissed."
As luck would have it he was discovered by a West German publisher who had seen his work at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and he quickly gained international recognition after winning the Golden Apple Award in 1983 at the Biennale of Illustraion in Bratislava, Slovakia. Ann Keay Beneduce, a Princeton-based editor and author who had seen his work at the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, met him the next year at the Moscow Book Fair and the two began collaborating. Beneduce eventually convinced Spirin to move to the United States in 1991, and he settled in Princeton with his wife and two sons, now grown. They had a third son, now 13, who was born here.
Spirin has never had a separate studio and prefers to work out of his home. According to a profile of Spirin in U.S.1 (May 27, 1998), on the occasion of the first of several shows at the now-closed Firebird Gallery, owned by Princeton resident Tatiana Popova, he makes no preparatory sketches for his illustrations. "His rich and fantastical paintings are created on Arches watercolor paper, which he first wets down and stretches as tight as a drum head. He then leaves the paper to dry, its pebble surface now considerably smoothed; and he applies his watercolors onto dry paper.
"Spirin tackles his paper with pencil in hand, drawing in his composition fully. Yet the artist who insists on spontaneity won’t be bound by these lines either. For once he starts to apply his paints, the pencil lines are obscured. And he proceeds with enthusiasm and expressivity, unhampered by the idea of painting within the pencil lines."
His work has been compared to that of Italian master Raphael as well as the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck and the German Renaissance artist Albert Durer. He says of his work: "Everything is in the realistic style because it is the most understood by children. Not photographic realism, but a fairy-tale realism."
Booksigning with Gennady Spirin, Saturday, December 3, 1 to 4 p.m., The Artful Deposit Gallery, 201 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. In conjunction with an exhibit of the Princeton resident and Russian-born illustrator’s original works from more than a dozen of his illustrated books. Also unframed originals and signed giclee prints. On view through Tuesday, January 3. Booksigning also Saturday, December 17, 1 to 4 p.m. Gallery open Tuesday through Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m. 609-298-6970.