Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures

Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and PicturesRobert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures, by Jane McCloskey. Published by Smith/Kerr Associates, 2011. 256 pp.

If you have ever wondered what it would feel like to grow up with your life chronicled by an acclaimed artist, Jane McCloskey’s Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures should go to the top of your reading list. Do not expect startling revelations or deep insights into Robert McCloskey’s personal life. That is not this book. Do look forward to countless sketches and paintings beautifully presented in a coffee-table sized format. Do find an autobiography of the famous author/illustrator’s daughter with frequent recollections of her father during her childhood and adolescence.

“Bob,” as Jane called her father, was a private person and her remembrances are told in a simple, almost juvenile voice. Her father’s occupation was always a part of her life–his studio a peripheral point just offstage. Yet, there are times we are given glimpses into his working method such as when the young Jane remembers playing with her rocking horse and her father seems to suddenly sense the artistic possibilities. He moves the rocking horse and positions his daughter a certain way and quickly sketches her. The resulting painting is her favorite portrait.

Parents should note that training your children to be artist’s models from a young age probably prepares them to be still for long stretches of time. It seems Sal and Jane were frequent subjects for their father’s sketchpad.

Robert McCloskey is interesting as a portrait of certain times and places–Maine mostly with notable sojourns to New York and Mexico–from the perspective of a child. Jane seems to embody the statement that inside we are every age we have ever been–her ten-year-old self surfaces on demand. Her friends, her impressions of the places she visits, her sometimes complicated feelings about her older sister Sal, are all shared in the manner of several playground conversations. “Did I tell you about the time I almost met Andy White?” or “Bob’s friend Mort makes movies of his books.” Fortunately, Jane places the people she meets in context so we do learn that Andy White is the author E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web (see The Story of Charlotte’s Web for a masterful biography) and that Mort is actually Morton Schindel, the founder of Weston Woods.

This handsome volume acts as a family album but rather than faded photographs, we see the spare artistry of a revered and somewhat reclusive illustrator at the top of his game.

– Reviewed by Ellen Myrick