BLUE HILL, Maine — Their father is among the most beloved children’s authors of all time, the artist behind such classics as “Make Way for Ducklings,” “Blueberries for Sal” and “One Morning in Maine.”
Yet here were Sally and Jane McCloskey, standing in the Blue Hill Public Library’s Britton Gallery on a recent morning trying to figure out what year Robert McCloskey might have painted an image of three women in large, floppy sun hats.
“Do you think it’s late ’70s?” Sally McCloskey asked her sister.
“I keep thinking it’s the ’80s. Early ’80s,” Jane McCloskey replied.
“Well, when did they sell the place?” Sally said, speaking of the McCloskey-owned house on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “In the early ’80s?”
“No, middle ’80s, at least. So that might be early ’80s,” Jane answered.
Rich Boulet, the director of the library, was standing nearby, pen at the ready for when the sisters came up with a usable date for a gallery label which would be placed near the painting.
“This is when we get to use the word ‘circa,’” Boulet said as the group moved on to debate the date of the next painting.
Little is known of the dates of most of the 23 works in the library’s new exhibit, “Robert McCloskey: The Unknown Artist,” which includes never-before-displayed paintings of McCloskey’s family life, travels to Mexico, the Mediterranean and St. Thomas, Maine scenes and images of birds and other animals.
Not only did McCloskey not sign or date the paintings, but he also didn’t title them. Many weren’t framed. He apparently didn’t seem to care about how carefully they were stored. He painted them during downtime between his book illustration projects, for which he was the first person to win two Caldecott Awards.
“He sort of thought of these as his own private exercise, maybe, his private work, never something to be shown or be put out there,” said Sally, who will give a presentation at the library about her father’s work at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 10. “Once he was done with the painting, I think, he was sort of done with it.”
One thing, however, is certain. The paintings exhibited in this show, which will be on display until June 30, are vastly different from anything McCloskey, who died in 2003 in Deer Isle, did in his books.
Ellsworth resident Sally, now 65, and Jane, 61, who lives in Deer Isle, said their father, whom they refer to as Bob, started as a muralist and worked as a cartoonist. Those influences are evident in the heavy lines and the expressions on the faces of characters in his books.
For his personal paintings, however, McCloskey used either watercolor or casein, which uses a milk-based binding agent that lends a matte finish.
The styles of the paintings vary widely as well. The painting “Three Ladies in Hats,” — a title the sisters came up with for the painting of the St. Thomas women — recalls the flat planes and blocks of color of Alex Katz’s work.
Earlier pieces, such as “Ruth Sawyer Durand’s Cook Stove,” a watercolor which the sisters determined to be from about 1946, are more realistic and softer.
“His style definitely progressed through time, and got more and more abstract,” Sally said.
Jane and Sally believe their father’s private work shows influences from a number of sources — from early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca to the Jay Hambridge book “The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry” to Marc Simont, an art school classmate of McCloskey’s who went on to illustrate children’s books and work for Sports Illustrated magazine.
Also on display at the library are McCloskey’s easel and some of the objects, such as a teddy bear and a rocking horse, which he included in early images of Sally and Jane.
The paintings and other items came to the Blue Hill library after a conversation last August between Sally McCloskey and Boulet.
Sally mentioned the paintings to Boulet during an art opening, and showed him some images she happened to have with her on a laptop computer. Boulet told her on the spot that he’d like to organize a show of McCloskey’s work.
Penny Ricker, the art teacher at the Blue Hill Consolidated School, hung the paintings last week.
The McCloskey family has close ties to the Blue Hill Peninsula and waters around Deer Isle, where the family had a summer place on Scott Island off Little Deer Isle. Jane recalled her sister receiving a letter addressed, simply enough, to Sally McCloskey, Penobscot Bay, Maine — an indication of how well-known the family was in the area.
Jane McCloskey also recalled an incident after the release of her father’s book “Time of Wonder,” in which a big storm approaches in the Penobscot Bay. The next summer, Jane said, a couple anchored their boat in the family’s cove. When they came ashore, the boaters told McCloskey they found him based on his writing about the storm in the book.
The couple, Jane recalled, was invited to stay for dinner.
“To me, this is what fame is,” Jane said.
Sally doesn’t remember her father’s fame affecting their lives, however, until after she graduated from law school.
“People would greet me and say, ‘You’re Sal, you’re Robert McCloskey’s daughter,’” she said. “I never thought of myself or him in that light of being, quote-unquote, famous or the subject of a book. To us he was just a man who was our father.”
McCloskey’s final book came out in 1963, Sally said, after which he took up puppeteering. He also continued to paint, but didn’t seem to care what happened to the paintings. He stored them in piles — some of the works on display in Blue Hill show signs of wear — and in corners in an attic.
“I don’t know, I sort of think he thought of [the paintings] as the icing on the cake,” said Jane, who is working on a book about her father’s life, which she expects to be published next February. “If someone wanted to do something with them after he died, he wouldn’t worry about it. … I think they did give him a feeling of freedom, not having to worry about an audience or how other people would feel about them.”
“Robert McCloskey: The Unknown Artist,” which is free, will be on display through June 30. Sally McCloskey will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 10. For more information, call 374-5515. The Blue Hill Public Library, located at 5 Parker Point Road in Blue Hill, is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.