The Art & Storytelling of Claire A. Nivola
When Claire Nivola’s mother, Ruth Guggenheim Nivola escaped Nazi Germany at age sixteen, she was forced to leave everything behind, including a beloved doll named Elisabeth. Years later, Ruth’s search for a doll for her own daughter’s sixth birthday took her to a Long Island, New York antique store where a vintage doll caught her eye. It was Elisabeth! Its right forearm had two puncture marks exactly where her childhood dog Fifi had bitten her. She purchased the doll and it became a family heirloom. Nivola recounts this amazing story in her book Elisabeth, published in 1997.
Illustrations from Elisabeth and eight other picture books are featured in The Art & Storytelling of Claire A. Nivola opening April 22 and on view through November 5, 2023. Curated by the Museum’s founding director H. Nichols B. Clark, the exhibition presents stories of Nivola’s family and the chronicles of prominent individuals such as poet Emily Dickinson, author Emma Lazarus, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, activist Wangari Maathai, and outsider artist Nek Chand. It comprises 60 watercolor, gouache, and graphite illustrations as well as a selection of preliminary materials that underscore Nivola’s intense research and process.
“Claire Nivola illustrates the lives of many esteemed women who endured and succeeded through tenacity and perseverance,” says Clark. “She also offers poignant insights into aspects of her family’s life. She does this through a clarity of form and delicacy of touch that results in a thoroughly satisfying visual experience.” Nivola’s stunning book Star Child (2014) is a meditation on the wonder of birth and the mystery of death as informed by the birth of her son and the passing of her father. This rumination on life became a focal point for the 2021 film C’mon C’mon. The movie revived interest in the book and the film studio A24 published a special revised edition.
Nivola was born into a family of artists and drew incessantly as a child. She developed exceptional skill without the regimen of art school. She recalls that she was “raised by artist parents, surrounded by their artist friends, materials always at hand, a way of life, beautiful objects and artwork always before my eyes.” From her mother she inherited a love of detail; from her father, she developed a sense of self-assurance and ease of work. “They both imparted to me a love of beauty in one’s surroundings,” says Nivola. In the summers, the artist and her family would return to her father’s birthplace on the island of Sardinia. In Orani: My Father’s Village (2011), Nivola basks in the simplicity of the local life she temporarily shared with her cousins, her painterly touch reflecting a folk-art approach fitting to the story’s rural European setting.
Nivola combines exquisite color, complex patterning, and attention to detail, all on an intimate scale. She builds her landscapes with delicate, dappled brushstrokes and fills her interior scenes—often viewed through doorways and windows—with endless details that keep readers engaged. In the guise of paintings-within-paintings, she includes art historical references to masterpieces by Piero della Francesca, Henri Matisse, and others. Such details are on full display in Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty (2010) by Linda Glaser and The Friday Nights of Nana (2001) by Amy Hest. For Emma, Nivola scoured pictorial histories and illustrated newspapers of the Victorian period to depict an upper-middle-class taste in fashion and décor, while photographs of immigrant children at play and at school served as direct models for her scenes of children much less fortunate. In The Friday Nights of Nana, a touching intergenerational account of the Jewish Shabbat meal, Nivola articulates a sense of the past through vintage furniture and accessories in a rich domestic array.
The Mouse of Amherst, written by Elizabeth Spires, will resonate with residents of Western Massachusetts. In delicate graphite drawings, Nivola illustrates this fanciful account of friendship between a mouse named Emmaline and the poet Emily Dickinson, set in Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Nivola happened upon oceanographer Sylvia Earle through a radio program and gravitated to her deep concern for the natural world, inspiring her book Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle (2012). Nivola’s commitment to environmental issues, especially climate change, prompted her to relate the story of Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai in Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai (2008). With a commitment to accuracy, Nivola presents a lively energy as Maathai achieved extraordinary success in returning Kenya to its former natural glory. In The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art (2018) by Barb Rosenstock, Nivola’s familiar detailed approach depicts Chad’s secret construction of a magical kingdom built from salvaged materials; it survives today as the largest visionary environment in the world.
“As an artist, Nivola blends an untutored, yet subtle clarity with a sophisticated often delicately dappled touch,” says Clark. “Like all truly accomplished artists, she possesses an extensive frame of art-historical reference and employs it to admirable effect. I’m thrilled to curate her important work.
Books in the exhibition illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
Star Child, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola (New York: Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014) (re-designed and re-issued New York: A24 Films LLC, 2022)
The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art by Barb Rosenstock (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola (New York: Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)
Orani: My Father’s Village, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola (New York: Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Spring 2011)
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Spring 2010)
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola (New York: Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
The Friday Nights of Nana by Amy Hest (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2001)
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires (New York: Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999)
Elisabeth, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola (New York: Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997)
About the Museum
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is the international champion for picture books. We collect, preserve, and exhibit original illustrations, encourage guests of all ages to read and create art, and foster an ever-growing audience passionate about children’s literature.
The late Eric and Barbara Carle co-founded the Museum in November 2002. Eric Carle was the renowned author and illustrator of more than 70 books, including the 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Since opening, the 43,000-square foot facility has served nearly one million visitors. The Carle houses 9,000 permanent collection illustrations. The Carle has three art galleries, an art studio, a theater, picture book and scholarly libraries, and educational programs for families, scholars, educators, and school children. Bobbie’s Meadow is an outdoor space that combines art and nature. Educational offerings include professional training for educators around the country and master’s degree programs in children’s literature with Simmons University. The Museum offers digital resources, including art activities, book recommendations, collections, exhibition videos, and workshops for online visitors. Learn more at www.carlemuseum.org and on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram @CarleMuseum.
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