Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Q&A with Maryann Macdonald

Maryann Macdonald, photo by Stefan Falke
Maryann Macdonald is the author of the new children's picture book Rosa's Animals: The Story of Rosa Bonheur and Her Painting Menagerie. Her many other books for kids include Odette's Secrets and The Christmas Cat. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about the artist Rosa Bonheur?

A: While wandering through the Metropolitan Museum one day, I ran across The Horse Fair, a huge painting that shows horses and their handlers parading past. The horses' eyes glinted; the dust kicked up by their hooves was suspended in the air. I was captivated.

I studied the painting for some time, then looked at the attribution. The artist, a woman, had been forced to dress as a man to make preparatory sketches for the painting in 19th century Paris. Women would not have been able to sketch in public without attracting negative attention.  

I read more about Bonheur and learned that she was denied a formal art education because of her gender. Despite this, she became the best-known female painter of her day. Here was a story!

Q: How did you choose the artwork to include in the book?

A: I looked for artwork that reflected or enhanced Bonheur's story. Some of what I chose is still and reflective. Some is full of action. I tried to include a little of everything, but there wasn't room for it all.

Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: First, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's own library. I read everything I could find there, and then looked at other New York libraries and on the Internet. I visited museums in New York and Washington to see more of Bonheur's work.  

I made inquiries at the tourist bureau in Thomery, near Paris, where Bonheur lived, to see whether I could visit her chateau. I also visited Paris to see where Bonheur lived and died and to see some of her most famous paintings. I tried to visit her chateau, but it was unfortunately closed to the public. I approached art historians to see what I could learn from them.

Last of all, I began the lengthy process of tracking down reproducible images for the book. This all took some time, but I discovered my passion for Bonheur and her life sustained me. I never got tired of following her remarkable story.

Q: How would you describe Rosa Bonheur's legacy today?

A: Rosa Bonheur was a woman who was true to herself, who did things her own way. She loved animals more than anything in life, and was devoted to depicting them in her art as they really were. She didn't look over her shoulder to see what the trends were, and was not jealous of the work of others.  

"Every kind of painting has its masterpiece," she famously said. This ability to achieve excellence while holding to her own standards is her legacy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have changed gears and have recently written several picture books: My Playdate is one of them. Playdates are one of the most exciting events in a child's life, yet I had never seen a book about I wrote my own!  

I am also a grandmother now, and have discovered the joys of that experience. I recently wrote two picture books, It's Good to Have a Grandma and It's Good to Have a Grandpa, about the fun and closeness that exists in the grandparent/grandchild relationship. All three of these books will be published next year by Albert Whitman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was sitting on a bench in Central Park the other day when a troupe of policemen rode by on horseback. I couldn't help but admire their beautiful, well-groomed horses, but they passed all too quickly.  

I couldn't help but think of Rosa Bonheur and her masterpiece, The Horse Fair, in the Metropolitan Museum nearby. How had Bonheur managed to capture these huge animals in motion with such fire and animation? What an amazing human being! What a powerful artist!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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