Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Tis the Season: The Night Before Christmas, illustrated by Robert Ingpen

Clement C. Moore's classic poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" has inspired legions of illustrators.

It is a picture book artist's dream--well-known text lines in a perfect anapest which trip off the tongue--describing sweeping moonlit landscapes, snow-swept and lighted with a silvery glow, graceful reindeer, a chubby comical elfin saint swooping out of the night, cozy holiday interiors which have run the picture-book gamut from Cajun cabins to Victorian mansions, cherubic children snugly sleeping as they dream of sugarplums, and the delicious chance for the bemused pater familias to spy upon the elfin Christmas benefactor as he goes about his secret midnight gift-giving. It is an opportunity which must make a veteran illustrator's fingers itch to grab that pen and paintbrush and create their own scenes.

Another of this year's entries into that august but crowded genre is Aussie artist Robert Ingpen, whose new The Night Before Christmas (Sterling, 2010) and is a worthy inheritor to this venerable illustrative tradition. Ingpen, whose draftsmanlike skills have a strong realistic bent, here lets his imagination loose. His landscape is typically wintry and typically stunning, with shifts in perspective which show his "jolly old elf" Santa as a jovial, rotund, but tiny figure, with his miniature sleigh--not the usual generously-proportioned rococo Victorian conveyance--but a smallish, Finnish-style sled shaped of carved rounded wood. Depicted in a sepia and gray palette, his farmhouse is a solid English stone house, graced with a steep slate roof, several chimneys, and small shuttered windows suited to a harsh climate. Ingpen varies his view, from a closeup of a jolly little Santa to a sweeping wide-angle view of the reindeer precariously parked on the roof's peak.

Ingpen's interiors suggest sturdy comfort rather than elegance, with ordinary woolen stockings of various lengths hanging from a small, plain fireplace mantel, adorned only with a single candlestick and carved duck decoy. The dazed, abruptly-awakened father, his single candle drooping dangerously, is startled to see the sooty intruder picking himself up from the fireplace opening, scattering soot all over the floorboards, but he quickly recovers as the little saint chuckles at his embarrassment, bestows his goodies, and makes his exit expeditiously the way in which he came.

Illustrators from Leonard Weisgard to Tasha Tudor, from Tomie de Paola to Jan Brett, from Tom Browning to James Marshall have taken up this classic story over the years, and all of their versions are delightful and delighting in their own way. Robert Ingpen's latest version, The Night Before Christmas takes its place rightfully with the wonderful retellings of that Christmas Eve visitor.

For more nostalgic holiday atmosphere, there is also Ingpen's wonderful illustrated version of Dicken's A Christmas Carol.

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