The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, the first major United States exhibition to pay tribute to award-winning author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983), whose beloved children’s books include Whistle for Willie (1964), Peter’s Chair (1967), and The Snowy Day (1962), opens at the National Museum of American Jewish History on July 19th, 2013 and remains on view through October 20, 2013.
Published at the height of the American civil-rights movement and winner of the prestigious Caldecott Medal, The Snowy Day became a milestone, featuring the first African-American protagonist in a modern full-color picture book. The Snowy Day went on to inspire generations of readers, and paved the way for multiracial representations in American children’s literature. Also pioneering were the urban settings of Keats’s stories; picture books had rarely featured such gritty landscapes before.
Organized by The Jewish Museum in New York City, the exhibition features more than 80 original works – from preliminary sketches and dummy books, to final paintings and collages for the artist’s most popular books. Also on view are examples of Keats’s most introspective but less-known work, inspired by Asian art and haiku poetry, as well as documentary material and photographs.
Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz in Brooklyn in 1916. His parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants and very poor. Although he briefly studied painting in Paris on the GI Bill after serving in World War II, Keats was primarily self-taught. He drew upon memories of growing up in East New York, one of the most deprived neighborhoods of New York City. Keats’s experience of anti-Semitism and poverty in his youth gave him a lifelong sympathy for others who suffered prejudice and want. His work transcends the personal and reflects the universal concerns of children.
“The child of Jewish immigrants and a true innovator, Keats blended the everyday world of his Brooklyn home with his passion for social justice and Asian art,” stated Dr. Josh Perelman, NMAJH’s chief curator and director of exhibitions. “Families and art lovers alike will delight in the colorful illustrations featured in the exhibition and in reading together from the many timeless classics of American literature Keats authored or illustrated.”
The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats explores Keats’s multifaceted oeuvre in six sections preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue.
The introductory gallery presents a selection of works that can be construed as self-portraits of the artist. Throughout his career Keats often cast himself in his work, posing as different characters, from the immigrant violinist János in Penny Tunes and Princesses (1972) to the exuberant junkman Barney in Louie’s Search (1980).
“The Snowy Day” section presents a wide selection of illustrations for the 1962 landmark book as well as for Whistle for Willie (1964) and Peter’s Chair (1967), featuring Peter as he grows up. The Snowy Day’s critical reception and the debate sparked by its publication are also examined.
Keats’s most introspective work is the focus of the “Spirituality, Nature, and Asian Art” section. On display are illustrations for In a Spring Garden (1965), an anthology of haiku poems, with silhouetted animals set against skies of marbled paper; and his sumptuous art for Over the Meadow (1971), combining watercolor and collage. A preparatory drawing for The Giant Turnip, a Russian folktale that Keats chose to illustrate as a Japanese story, is also on view. The book was nearing completion at the time of the artist’s death in 1983.
Be Social with the National Museum of Jewish American History
Related Exhibition Programs
Tuesdays, July 2, 9, and 16 – 10:30-12:00 pm
Illustrating Childhood: The History of Children’s Book Illustration in the United States
- Instructor: Mary F. Zawadzki Ph.D. Candidate
- Over the course of three sessions, the Illustrating Childhood course will review the history of children’s book illustration from the nineteenth century through the present, surveying a broad spectrum of stylistic and socio-cultural developments.
Sunday, August 4 – A Snowy Day in August: Keats Family Day
- Hourly 11:00 to 4:00 – Storytelling/reading
- 10:30 am and 1:30 pm – Screenings of animated films of Keats’s books including The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Peter’s Chair, Pet Show!, A Letter to Amy, The Trip, and Apt. 3.
- 1:00 pm – How to Build a Storm: The Weather Show, presented by The Franklin Institute.
- Various arts and crafts activities throughout the Museum, including book-making, hat decorating, and puppet making.
About the National Museum of American Jewish History
The National Museum of American Jewish History, located on historic Independence Mall in Philadelphia, brings to life the 350-year history of Jews in America.
The National Museum of American Jewish History is located at 101 South Independence Mall East at the corner of Fifth and Market Streets in Philadelphia. For more information on the Museum, the public may call 215.923.3811 or visit the website at nmajh.org.