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Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey at the MFA

Robert McCloskey, Burt Dow, Deep Water Man


Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey at the MFA

Kate Kenney

Inside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, a room of color blooms. There are fictional seaside blues and house shingle reds. A friendly grey whale graces the white walls like a story out of a children’s dream. It is the Make Way for Ducklings exhibit featuring the artwork of author and illustrator, Robert McCloskey. Over 50 paintings by McCloskey are presented in a stunning collection of sketches and final watercolors by the artist. This exhibit coincides with the 75th anniversary of the 1941 publication of Make Way for Ducklings.

Among his books, including Blueberries for Sal (1948) and One Morning in Maine (1952), McCloskey shows a distinct love for the New England landscape. Sketches from Make Way for Ducklings show the quaint streets of Boston in all its brick-lined enchantment. The detail in his most preliminary illustrations conjures an element of timelessness and familiarity that makes the viewer feel as if they too are wandering about the leafy path of the Boston’s Public Garden.

As curator Meghan Melvin offered, McCloskey often composed illustrations with a sense of movement and perspective. Many of the illustrations in Make Way for Ducklings seem, in fact, to be from the perspective of a duckling. This tangible viewpoint, as Melvin described, allows the reader to be immersed in a new outlook and is perhaps what makes children, to this day, absorb themselves so greatly in McCloskey’s storytelling.

Other artwork on display includes illustrations from the wonderful, fisherman swallowed by a whale story, Burt Down, Deep Water Man (1963). Preliminary sketches show a penciled man throwing buckets of black and yellow paint on the inside walls of a great whale. One fascinating aspect of seeing these sketches is to see McCloskey’s blocky text included within the paintings themselves. It is as if story and illustration were born as one, always coexisting. The finalized painting hangs beside this sketch, a wonderful splash of colors tossed in splatters along the whale’s rosy belly. One could assume this to be his glorious tribute to improvisation and fun to an artist that can be found just upstairs, Jackson Pollock.

Perhaps the most special feature of the exhibit is the unpublished photographs of McCloskey and his family taken by Suzanne Szasz for LIFE magazine. The photos, all in black and white, were taken in 1952 at McCloskey’s house in Maine. The outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s left the photos unpublished. What can be seen with Szasz’s images is McCloskey’s love for nature and exploration. One image shows McCloskey walking through a shallow river, his young daughter running ahead toward towering evergreens. Another shows the illustrator leaning against a ladder while reading, a dog at his feet.

It is these small details of his life that we see joyfully echoed back in McCloskey’s work. This exhibit wonderfully captures McCloskey’s vision of the natural world and the wonderment inside a single fleeting moment. Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass., until June 18, 2017. For more information, call (617) 267-9300.