From the Stacks: Maurice Boutet de Monvel

There are many diverse collections of materials found within the Walter Havighurst Special Collections. One such collection, The Edgar and Faith King Juvenile Literature Collection is home to over 10,000 children’s books, toys and games, and magazines printed from the seventeenth century through the 1900s. This collection is a rich source of children’s books, both old classics and “new” discoveries.

During a cataloging project I happened upon one such discovery. Maurice Boutet de Monvel was a French painter and illustrator born in Orléans in 1851. Boutet de Monvel began his artistic career as an academic painter in the Salon style and studied under such notable artists as Alexandre Cabanel, Gustave Boulanger, Jules Joseph Lefevre, and Carolus Duran. While he did receive some attention for several of his paintings, it wasn’t until Boutet de Monvel made the switch to illustration that he found real popularity. The evolution of his delicate and whimsical style is best described in his own words:

“Of course, I found out directly that I could not put in the mass of little things which I had elaborated on my canvasses. Gradually, through a process of elimination and selection, I came to put in only what was necessary to give the character. I sought in every little figure, every group, the essence, and worked for that alone. [I searched for what] we may call the soul, the spirit of the object represented… This is the lesson taught me by the necessity of expressing much with the thin, encircling line of the pen.

Boutet de Monvel illustrated several song books for children, including Vielles Chansons et Rondes pour les Petits Enfants (Old Songs and Rounds for Small Children) in 1883 and Chansons de France pour les Petits Français (Songs of France for Little French People) in 1884.

In 1895 Boutet de Monvel published an illustrated history of Joan of Arc, largely regarded as his finest work. The illustrations found in Joan of Arc are at once charming and somber. In order to capture the serious subject matter, Boutet de Monvel used a muted color palette that he described as “…not color, really, it is the impression, the suggestion of color…”

Having already been familiar with such classic illustrators as Arthur Rackham, Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Maxfield Parish, stumbling upon someone “new” is always exciting. What made this discovery even more exciting for me was the nature of the materials I was cataloging. Not only does the Walter Havighurst Special Collections hold many of the titles illustrated by Boutet de Monvel, but we also hold several portfolios of what look to be page proofs and plates of the illustrations found within those titles.

Having myself a background in illustration it is always a treat to get a closer look at the illustration, printing and publishing process a book goes through. Many of the page proofs include hand coloring, handwritten notations, and hand placed text. You can see in the first example various stages for the vignette found on the cover of La Civilité Puérile et Honnête; the simple black and white line drawing, a hand colored proof with notations, and finally the finished illustration as it appears on the cover of the 1887 publication.

The second example, again from La Civilité Puérile et Honnête shows a proof with hand written notations and a hand lettered heading pasted into place, alongside the illustration as it appears in the finished publication.

The 1880’s to the 1920’s is considered to be a period of unprecedented excellence in book and magazine illustration. Many illustrators thrived during this period, including but not limited to Howard Pyle, Beatrix Potter, Aubrey Beardsley, Kay Nielsen, and N.C. Wyeth, as well as those illustrators mentioned above. The Walter Havighurst Special Collections King Collection is home to many examples of the remarkable work that was produced during this golden age of illustration. We hope that you stop by and see what other artistic treasures we have to offer.

Ashley Jones
Preservation Librarian