Sendak mural gets a new home at new library branch

Maurice Sendak’s only known extant mural is at a new library at Broad and Morris Streets.

A couple of years after Maurice Sendak's death, the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia shipped off the vast majority of its Sendak items - as per the author-illustrator's will - to his eponymous foundation. The loss of those 10,000 or so books, manuscripts, and other materials may have left many feeling bereft of Sendakiana in Philadelphia.

But about 500 Sendak items remain in the collection of the Rosenbach museum and library at 20th Street and Delancey Place. And one significant piece just gained greater visibility.

Sendak's only known extant mural has been recently given a new home in the Free Library of Philadelphia's new branch, opening soon at Broad and Morris Streets in South Philadelphia. Painted originally in 1961 in the bedroom of New York City's Chertoff children - Nina and Larry - and moved to the Rosenbach several years ago, the mural now promises to catch the eyes of borrowers at the first-floor library and visitors to the city health center and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia satellite on floors above.

It is, in effect, a gift from two children to many more across the generations.

"The parade of characters was so wonderful to grow up with," says Nina Chertoff, 58, of New York, who herself grew up to be an author and literary agent who has handled ("perhaps not so coincidentally") several children's books. "Seeing Maurice standing at the wall painting will always be a vivid and exciting childhood memory. Although it always did irk me that my brother Larry's name was listed first on the lion's umbrella. Mine came second."

Chertoff says she is pleased that the mural is in a space where more people will see it.

The piece - moved earlier this month, and viewable by the public for the first time starting June 11 - had been at the Rosenbach only a short time. When it was in the middle of a gallery devoted to Sendak, its location was a natural.

But most of the Sendak material is now gone, and it is not clear how much the Rosenbach will be able to borrow in the future. The author of Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen left a will expressing his wish that all of his material continue to be shown, including the 10,000 items owned by his estate. But he left only vague instructions for the exact arrangement between the Rosenbach and the Sendak estate for future loans of these items. A lawsuit on the matter is ongoing.

"We'd like to have exhibitions of Maurice Sendak in the future - it's a large question mark right now - but we don't have enough material to show exhibitions constantly," said Rosenbach director Derick Dreher. "So to have the mural in the middle of that gallery would be too jarring." The new site, he said, "is a place where it could have an audience of hundreds of thousands."

The loss of the 10,000 Sendak items was a blow to the Rosenbach, which mounted more than 70 Sendak shows between 1969 and 2014. Still, the 500 or so remaining items make the museum and library "one of the few significant publicly accessible collections of Sendak's work anywhere in the world," says Rosenbach curator Patrick J. Rodgers.

Much of it is original artwork Sendak produced for books early in his career, in the 1950s and '60s. Included are preliminary drawings for Really Rosie; an extensive cache of drawings for Shadrach, as well as Atomics for the Millions and The Acrobat; drawings and page proofs for Circus Girl; plus 180 books, various pieces of correspondence, printed posters, scripts for film versions of The Nutcracker and Sendak's book Very Far Away, and other ephemera.

But if some of the items on Delancey Place are Lilliputian, rendered in ink laid down by an extremely small nib, Sendak in South Philadelphia looks rather grand. The mural - about four feet by 10 - shows a parade of characters: a drummer boy, a bugler, a lion and bear, a little girl of Really Rosie-Kate Greenaway blend, and two birds. "You can look at this as a wild rumpus," said Dreher, referencing Where the Wild Things Are.

Others might think of Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life. Judith M. Guston, the Rosenbach's curator and director of collections, points out that the mural in its original perch on Central Park West was positioned near a window so that it looked as if Jennie the dog - star of Higglety Pigglety Pop!, whose model was one of Sendak's own dogs - were leading the parade right into Central Park.

Now she has her nose pointed toward South Broad Street - less verdant, for sure. But "it's nice," says Guston, "that she still gets her own window."

pdobrin@phillynews.com

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