MFA Boston Celebrates "Make Way for Ducklings" Author and Illustrator Robert McCloskey

MFA Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Coinciding with the 75th anniversary of his landmark publication Make Way for Ducklings (1941), a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), tracks the career of Robert McCloskey (1914–2003), award-winning author and illustrator behind some of 20th-century America’s most beloved picture books for children.

Make Way for Ducklings, the popular tale of a mallard family set in Boston—and inspiration for the famous sculpture in the Boston Public Garden—has continued to charm generations of readers and was designated as the official children’s book of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2003.

Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey, on view in the Edward and Nancy Roberts Family Gallery now through–June 18, 2017, presents more than 50 works on paper, drawn primarily from the rich, but rarely exhibited holdings of The May Massee Collection at Emporia State University in Kansas. Preparatory drawings for Make Way for Ducklings are shown alongside preliminary studies and final illustrations for the seven other books written and illustrated by McCloskey. These include Lentil (1940), Homer Price (1943) and Centerburg Tales (1951), which recall his youth in rural Ohio, and his popular Maine tales Blueberries for Sal (1948), One Morning in Maine (1952), Time of Wonder (1957) and Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man (1963). The exhibition also includes a set of miniature bronze models for local artist Nancy Schön’s Make Way for Ducklings sculpture, family photographs and examples of McCloskey’s independent work, which reveal his talents as a painter.

Visitors of all ages are invited to enter the author’s delightful world, and an exhibition-specific family guide, available for free in the gallery, encourages close looking and includes drawing activities for children. “Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey” is organized by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Massachusetts. The Museum of Fine Arts presentation is made possible by Northern Trust. With support from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund and the Patricia B. Jacoby Exhibition Fund. Media sponsor is Boston magazine.

Visitors can follow duck prints leading from the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard downstairs to the exhibition gallery, which features large-scale reproductions of the author’s illustrations and a reading bench with a selection of his books.

“Picture books are often our earliest introduction to both reading and art, and I’m thrilled that the Museum is presenting this close look at McCloskey’s charming and imaginative illustrations—particularly because of his personal ties to Boston and New England,” said Meghan Melvin, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Curator of Design, who organized the MFA’s presentation of the exhibition.

McCloskey was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1914. During his senior year of high school, in 1923, he received a scholarship to study art in Boston—the city that would later serve as the setting for Make Way for Ducklings. He also attended the National Academy of Design in New York, where he received numerous awards. Despite his talent, McCloskey sold few paintings. He fell into illustration by chance, after visiting the legendary children’s book editor May Massee, the aunt of a high-school classmate. Critiquing his portfolio of drawings, Massee counseled McCloskey to take time and explore the subjects he knew best. Taking her advice to heart, McCloskey returned to Ohio and began sketching a partially autobiographical story about a harmonica-playing boy named Lentil, set in small-town America. The resulting book, Lentil, was published by Massee in 1940 and launched his unexpected career.

McCloskey’s next book, based on a story he heard about a family of ducks that stopped traffic in the streets of Boston, catapulted him to fame. Eager to create accurate depictions, he spent two years studying mallard specimens at the American Museum of Natural History, consulted an ornithologist and even purchased 16 ducks that came to live in his small Greenwich Village apartment and serve as models. The exhibition features several preparatory drawings for key moments in Make Way for Ducklings—from Mrs. Mallard leading the ducklings ashore from the Charles River and into Beacon Hill to the police officer named Michael stopping traffic to help the family cross the street. McCloskey originally hoped to illustrate Make Way for Ducklings in watercolor, as can be seen in a color study for a scene depicting the ducklings swimming alongside a swan boat in the Boston Public Garden, but Massee declined due to the high cost of color printing at the time. Instead, the book was printed in brown ink—remarkably, McCloskey drew all the final images backwards onto zinc lithographic plates. Make Way for Ducklings earned him the first of two prestigious Caldecott Medals, awarded annually to illustrators of children’s picture books.

Local artist and School of the Museum of Fine Arts alumna Nancy Schön’s Make Way for Ducklings sculpture—one of Boston’s most recognizable landmarks—was commissioned in 1985 and installed in the Boston Public Garden in 1987. McCloskey, who visited Schön’s studio in February 1986, initially expressed concern about the larger-than-life size, but gave the artist his blessing after seeing the ducks outside. Bronze maquettes from about 1985, on loan from Schön’s personal collection, show her original vision of an additional sculpture, portraying Officer Michael, which was never realized—had it been made to scale with the ducks, the figure would have been the size of a giant.

In 1946, McCloskey purchased a home on Deer Isle, Maine, where he summered annually with his growing family. Life in Maine inspired four award-winning books, beginning with Blueberries for Sal (1948), whose human characters are modeled after his wife Peggy and their eldest daughter Sally. In addition to final illustrations, the exhibition includes sketchbooks filled with McCloskey’s studies of bears in the Central Park Zoo, blueberry plants at the New York Botanical Garden and sketches of Sally. McCloskey’s younger daughter, Jane, appears in One Morning in Maine (1952), another story that captures the charm of everyday family life. The poetic Time of Wonder (1957), which earned McCloskey his second Caldecott Medal, pays tribute to Maine’s natural beauty with delicate landscapes and ethereal light. His final book, Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man (1963), tells the story of an old fisherman who escapes from the belly of a whale by splattering paint—the scene is depicted in a vivid watercolor illustration reminiscent of paintings by Jackson Pollock.

Visiting with Kids

Admission to the MFA is always free for children ages 17 and under. The MFA Guide Kids’ Tour, available for rent at any ticket desk, Sharf Visitor Center and the entrance to the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery when an exhibition is on view, introduces young visitors ages 6 to 10 to the Art of the Americas and Contemporary collections. The Family Art Cart (available Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am–4 pm, in July and August; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am–4 pm, from September through June) offers fun, educational activities designed for children ages 4 and older to enjoy with adults. Additionally, self-guided activity sheets, each focused on a different theme and recommended for all ages, can be found in the Sharf Visitor Center.

Strollers are allowed in all galleries; however, there may be restrictions in the Gund Gallery if crowds are large. Baby-changing areas are located in restrooms throughout the Museum, and a quiet, private nursing room is available off of the Mary Stamas and Frances Vrachos Hemicycle Gallery. The Garden Cafeteria, located on the Courtyard Level in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, is open daily from 10:30 am–4 pm and features inexpensive, kid-friendly options. The New American Café, located in the Shapiro Family Courtyard, also features a kids’ menu.

Family Art Cart is made possible with endowment support from the Germeshausen Foundation Fund for Youth and Family Learning and the John and Dorothy Wilson Fund. Additional support for Art Connections Activity Cards made possible by Arthur R. Hilsinger and Barbara J. Janson.

MFA Playdates
Twice a month, the MFA hosts story time and looking activities in the galleries, followed by art making. Each month focuses on a different theme. The program is recommended for children ages 4 and younger with adults. MFA Playdates take place on the first and third Mondays of each month. Beginning in January 2017, they will take place on the first Monday and third Saturday of the month.

School Vacation Week Adventures
During public school vacation week, the MFA offers free drop-in activities, including storytelling, musical performances, family tours and art activities.

Cogan Family Foundation Vacation Week Adventures

  • April School Vacation Week: Tuesday–Friday, April 18–21, 2017

In conjunction with the exhibition, a shop kiosk located in the Shapiro Family Courtyard offers books by Robert McCloskey—including English and Spanish versions of Make Way for Ducklings. Additionally offerings include plush toys, stationery, T-shirts, posters and more.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and individual youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Photo By: 

Drawing for Make Way for Ducklings: Robert McCloskey

When: 
Now through–June 18, 2017
Phone: 
617-267-9300
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