In 1935, as a twenty-year-old enrolled in New York’s National Academy of Design, the Caldecott-winning illustrator Marc Simont began the practice of carrying a sketchbook around with him for the purpose of making rapid-fire, impromptu drawings of people. Simont had recently moved to New York from Paris, the city of his birth, for the second time in eight years and was beginning his second stint at the Academy, New York’s oldest, and one of its more traditional, art schools. (Students under the spell of modern abstraction were more apt to sign on with the Art Students League.) Simont, who had already earned a little money as a portrait artist, knew by then that his main interest lay in drawing people, but he had not yet formed any definite long-term plans. At the Academy, where student debate centered on the Old Masters’ relative merits, illustration was rarely even mentioned as a career path. Simont, however, had reason to remain open-minded about illustration, having grown up under the influence of his accomplished father, a well-regarded magazine artist. Simont now decided that the experience of sketching people rapidly with the goal always of catching something of the essence of their personality or behavior was bound to stand him in good stead, whatever his own future course.
Armed with his small “Scribble-In” brand sketchbooks purchased at a five-and-ten-cent store near the Academy, Simont drew in subways, bars, and other public places around town where, as he says, it was possible to work unnoticed, like a “bug in a fold in the curtain.” Sketching in this way became a lifelong habit. It was also while at the Academy, during the years 1935–1938, that Simont formed a close friendship with fellow student Robert McCloskey. In 1938, both men’s fledgling art careers were given a lift when an instructor hired the pair to assist in the painting of a series of murals for the Lever Brothers offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At about the same time, an acquaintance asked Simont to make a number of drawings to accompany a children’s book manuscript he was sending around to publishers. By this round-about means, Simont’s work first came to the attention of the juveniles editor at Dodd, Mead, and a major phase of his extraordinary career was launched.
None of the thousands of drawings contained in the two hundred sketchbooks Simont has compiled over nearly seven decades has ever before been published. What follows is a small (and altogether wonderful) sampling culled from the artist’s first, bug-in-the-curtain student days.
At first I was very bold when sketching people in public, looking straight at them without embarrassment. All that changed the day the man I was sketching across from me on the subway came over and ripped the page right off my Scribble-In book. The experience left me shaken, and I realized that if I was to continue sketching in public I would need to be less conspicuous.
During the summers of ’36 and ’37 I was an assistant to Jerry Farnsworth in his painting class in Provincetown. Mrs. Noyes (above), one of the students, would arrive in the morning in her town car. She would wait in her immaculate white dress while her chauffeur set up her easel and squeezed out the paints onto her palette.
This lady was just passing through.
Both these young women were students at the academy.
In the afternoon at Schrafft’s Restaurant on Fifth Avenue, tired shoppers would rest their feet and enjoy refreshments.
Playing checkers in Washington Square Park after dark was a popular pastime.
For two cents you could read about the Spanish Civil War.
A deck hand on The Normandie when it docked in New York after its maiden voyage.
When depressed, I made self-portraits in the hope they would exorcise the depression.
Bob McCloskey was mechanically inclined. (fixing his camera, above)
Capturing the essence of movement, be it in dance, baseball, or running to catch a bus, was always a challenge. These folks are doing a dance craze of the time — the shag.
All drawings by Marc Simont, circa 1935–1939. © 2004 by Marc Simont.