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A Richmond Exhibit of Children’s Illustrations Delivers History as Art 

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With a smile as beatific as Mona Lisa’s, a young black girl wearing pigtails listens with eyes closed while colorful squiggles representing opera music emanate from a wooden radio to her ears.

Raul Colon’s watercolor and colored-pencil illustration from the children’s book “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century” sums up the wonder of Virginia Historical Society’s beautiful new exhibit, “The Original Art: Celebrating the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration.” Unless you’re a parent, it’s unlikely you’d get to see the extraordinary illustrative work currently being created for children’s books.

Celebrating its 35th year as a showcase for children’s book illustrators and selected by the Society of Illustrators in New York — past members have included Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth — the exhibit showcases the highest level of harmony between story and image.

The exhibit is an opportunity to help young audiences understand how history and storytelling dovetail, says Caroline Legros, the historical society’s school program coordinator. “The illustration for ‘The Case for Loving’ is a wonderful example, with the real historical narrative of Richard and Mildred Loving transformed into a story that audiences of all ages can enjoy.”

Looking at Anton van Hertbruggen’s pencil, paint and charcoal illustration for “The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have” reveals loose brushwork and an eye for detail in the depiction of a camping scene complete with luggage atop a wood-paneled station wagon parked beside a tent. Nearby, a little boy and his imaginary dog dig in the dirt. A viewer can almost smell the pine trees.

Because children’s books begin with ideas or stories in search of ideal visual representations, when illustrators can convey everything essential, words become superfluous.

Jihyeon Lee’s colored pencil and oil pastel work for “Pool” is a minimalistic masterpiece from a wordless story depicting a massive white whale facing off with the two shy children who meet at the pool and decide to explore what’s underneath the water.

In a compelling juxtaposition of art and commerce, copies of the children’s books for which the works in the show were made await on a gallery table to provide context for those curious about the larger stories.

A related exhibit, “Illustrated Treasures,” pulls from the society’s collection of vintage children’s books focusing on Virginia authors, illustrators and Virginia-themed titles, such as a 1947 edition of “Misty of Chincoteague,” open to an exquisite two-page illustration of the ponies swimming from Assateague to Chincoteague Island.

“I wanted to select items that represented the diversity of illustration styles and techniques used to engage children,” Legros says. “I was also interested in showing how illustration trends shifted throughout the last 150 years.”

A 1959 edition of “My Kingdom for a Dragon” by Gail E. Haley is hyper-local, using woodcuts printed in the Albemarle County shop where Haley helped print, bind and sell the books. S

“The Original Art: Celebrating the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration” and “Illustrated Treasures” at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard. Free. vahistorical.org.

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