Remembering Children’s Book Illustrator Don Freeman

Don Freeman was born in San Diego, California on August 11,1908. This wonderful writer was orphaned at a young age. However, before his father passed he gave Don a new trumpet. Don practiced obsessively and eventually joined a California dance band.

Don Freeman graduated from Principia High School in St Louis, Missouri. Legend has it that one of Don Freeman’s instructors noted his talent and made arrangements for the young artist to enter the now famous Art Students League in New York. It was here where he studied under the art of Joan Sloan and Harry Wickey. Sloan and Wickey were very much involved in the movement, which was labeled the Ash Can school.

Don managed to support himself through out his schooling by playing his trumpet evenings and at Italian wedding receptions at night. During Don’s early years as a painter he worked in New York City. He finished canvasses of the depiction of inner city life including: show girls, Bowery boys, drunks, apple sellers, window washers and numerous citizens of the city that were down on their luck. Most of his work involved human beings; however, he did feature architectural elements from time to time. His focus of the figures within each painting was a depiction of their humanity. He never depicted these models as discouraged or depressed or unsuccessful but he would find the side of them, which often loved.

Freeman’s early influence was John Sloan, however, Honore Daumier was his mentor in many ways. Freeman’s love of Daumier’s work included devoted books to Daumier, sketch studies of Daumier’s work and an extraordinary copy of one of Daumier’s major paintings completed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His passion for the caricature of Daumier developed into a passion for draftsmanship.

Freeman slowly eased into a living sketching impressions of Broadway shows for the New York Times and The Herald Tribune. This change in his life caused a heartbreaking experience when he was so engrossed by sketching people on the subway; he forgot that his trumpet was sitting on the seat next to him. He ended up losing his trumpet but starting a new life changing experience.

Don was soon introduced to the world of Children’s Literature, when William Saroyan asked him to illustrate several books. He soon began writing and illustrating his own books, which he ended up loving. Through his writing, he was able to start his own theatre.

Don died in 1978 after a long and successful career. He orginated many beloved characters in his lifetime, perhaps the most beloved character of all was a stuffed, overall wearing bear, named Corduroy.

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