What you see: A detail from a series of nine mural panels that Ludwig Bemelmans drew on the downstairs walls of Hapsburg House, a private lunch club in Manhattan, in 1934.
Who is Ludwig Bemelmans? He was an Austrian-Hungarian immigrant who toiled in Manhattan’s hotel-restaurant world until he discovered a knack for writing and illustrating children’s books. He debuted Madeline, his greatest creation, in 1939.
Why did Bemelmans draw these mural panels? Hapsburg House’s owners tapped Bemelmans to design menu covers and decorate the walls with murals. The upstairs murals were lost, much to the artist’s dismay, when a new owner bought the property in the 1950s and painted over them. The downstairs murals, which featured whimsical black-and-white gouache scenes of the Vienna of Bemelmans’s boyhood, were salvaged when the venue closed in the 1970s. “I kind of see it as pieces of the man, pieces of the artist,” says Darren Sutherland, specialist for books, maps, manuscripts, and historical photographs at Bonhams.
Wait, is that Madeline? Maybe. “There’s echoes of Madeline everywhere,” says Sutherland, noting that scenes of schoolgirls shepherded by nuns appear on three of the nine panels. This mural might show Bemelmans playing with ideas that would animate the stories, five years before the first appeared. One vignette shows gape-mouthed girls clinging to a nun as a caged lion roars, but there’s no Madeline figure in the group to say ‘poo poo’ to it. “It’s the first public expression that I know of,” says Sutherland.
Why are the panels estimated at $40,000 to $60,000? Bemelmans went on to create other murals. Panels rescued from the children’s room on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, Christina, fetched more than $550,000 at Sotheby’s in 1999, but they may have been in better shape. Some of the color variations in the 1934 group could be patination, but others are due to overpainting, which suggests that Bemelmans may have tweaked the work over time.
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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.