Five picture books for #fivewomenartists

Can you name five women artists? It's surprisingly difficult for most people, even more so if you leave out the big three: Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe. This March, for Women's History Month, the National Museum for Women in the Arts (NMWA) is leading a social media campaign to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #fivewomenartists. I'm doing my part by sharing this list of five great picture books about women artists. Not including Cassatt, Kahlo, or O'Keeffe, although there are some gorgeous picture books about them, too!

Louise Bourgeois,  M is for Mother , 1998, pen and ink with colored pencil and graphite, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Louise Bourgeois, M is for Mother, 1998, pen and ink with colored pencil and graphite, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky; illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault (Abrams, 2016). As a child,  20th-century artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois learned to weave and repair tapestries alongside her mother in the family's tapestry restoration workshop. This experience inspired some of her most powerful works, including a series of steel spider sculptures--the largest of which is called Maman.

Four Pictures by Emily Carr by Nicolas Debon (Groundwood, 2003). Emily Carr (1871-1945) is one of Canada's most renowned artists; her work is now exhibited with and compared to Kahlo's and O'Keeffe's. In this graphic novel, Debon traces Carr's life story through four of her best paintings (also reproduced here).

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle; illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Henry Holt, 2010). I interviewed Margarita about this book when it first came out six years ago, and I still love it. Told in the voice of the young Maria Merian, 17th-century Dutch artist and naturalist.

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig by Deborah Hopkinson; illustrated by Charlotte Voake (Shwartz and Wade, 2016). Spoiler alert: the guinea pig DIES. But if you can get past that, this is a charming book, and the picture-letter format is similar to how Beatrix Potter's own early stories were written. There's even a P.S. (the author's note). 

Stand There! She Shouted: The Invincible Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron by Susan Goldman Rubin; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick, 2014) AND Imogen: The Mother of Modernism and Three Boys by Amy Novesky; illustrated by Lisa Congdon (Cameron + Company, 2012). Not one but two picture book biographies of photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-79) and Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883-1976). 

There. Now if anyone should ask you to name five women artists, you're all set (and then some--don't forget the illustrators of these books). Of course, you probably already were. Who's on your list?

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a toll collector for the city of Paris when, at the age of 40, he decided to become an artist--a famous artist. Michelle Markel's picture book biography The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (illustrated by Amanda Hall; Eerdmans, 2012) begins with that surprising decision. Her precise and poignant text balances Rousseau's love of nature and growing confidence in his own work (he was self-taught) with his lifelong desire for critical recognition.

Poor Henri! No sooner does he paint something we might consider a masterpiece(The Sleeping Gypsy, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, and The Dream are referenced in the text or in Hall's illustrations) than the experts say mean things about it: "They say it looks like he closed his eyes and painted with his feet."

But Rousseau keeps painting. Eventually, near the end of his life, younger, more well-known artists befriend him. One of them, Pablo Picasso, even throws a banquet in his honor (that's Picasso with Fernande Olivier on the right; a key at the back of the book identifies the other historical figures in the illustration below).

At last, and over one hundred years later, Rousseau's paintings hang in museums around the world. [There are three on view at the National Gallery; I'm excited to see them after having read the book.]

Amanda Hall's illustrations, rendered in watercolor and acrylics, really capture the feel of Rousseau's work, from the lush foliage and flowers to the faces of people and animals. In an illustrator's note (there's also an author's note, but sadly no sources), Hall writes that she "decided to break the rules of scale and perspective to reflect [Rousseau's] unusual way of seeing the world. For some of the illustrations, I drew directly on his actual paintings, altering them playfully to help tell the story." My favorite example is this image of a tiger literally crawling out of the canvas as Henri paints:

The understated text reads, "Sometimes Henri is so startled by what he paints that he has to open the window to let in some air."

Aside: Kids might be interested to know that the jungle in the computer-animated movie Madagascar was inspired by Rousseau's work. My own kids were also interested to know that I had a cheap print of Sleeping Gypsy in my college dorm room.

It's still my favorite Rousseau.

Martin de Porres, the rose in the desert

I wish I knew what drew Gary D. Schmidt, better known for realistic middle grade fiction such as The Wednesday Wars (a 2008 Newbery Honor book) and Okay for Now (2011), to the story of Martin de Porres, the first black saint in the Americas (actually, Schmidt tells us, Martin was the son of an African mother and a Spanish nobleman, born in Lima and educated by his father in Ecuador). The author's note at the back of Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert (illustrated by David Diaz; Clarion, 2012) is no help.

Schmidt's text, however, emphasizes Martin's humility and service to the poor as well as his love of animals (the note does tell us that Martin is patron saint of, among other things, social justice, public education, and animal shelters). And David Diaz illuminates Martin's story with his distinctive mixed-media illustrations, in what the Horn Book calls "Latin American hues [?] of red, turquoise, gold, and brown."

My favorite image is more subdued: It's night. Martin, in his black-and white Dominican habit, carries a basket of bread. He has a brown dog at his heels. Two silvery angels guide his way.