Beyond Ernest et Célestine: The Art of Gabrielle Vincent. In Conversation with Fondation Monique Martin

“Ernest et Célestine”, Gabrielle Vincent/Monique Martin. Duculot/Casterman. Courtesy of Fondation Monique Martin

She became known worldwide under her nom de plume, Gabrielle Vincent, author of the much loved children’s books Ernest et Célestine. The simple stories about the unlikely friendship between a big bear with a kind heart and a little mouse with a strong personality, two different worlds that beautifully come together, told gently and poetically, and so tenderly and expressively rendered through the minimalist hand-drawn watercolour brushstrokes, have had the power to capture the hearts of the young and old everywhere for 40 years.

Gabrielle’s illustrated stories go beyond the adventures of Ernest et Célestine though. From Un jour, un chien (A Day, a Dog), the story, in black and white and with no words, of the suffering of an abandoned dog on the side of a road, to the visually powerful and unsettling L’oeuf (The Egg), another wordless work and her most enigmatic, a hopeless revolt towards man’s actions against nature, Gabrielle Vincent’s drawings reveal a rich artistic mind and an innate sense of image.

But before she made a name as an illustrator, the Belgian artist had gained recognition as a painter, under her birth name, Monique Martin. Never the conventional type, never willing to explain her work much, Martin was a singular artist, one who was not afraid to free herself of what was expected of her, and changed career paths resuming to illustration. She never lost touch with her childhood passion, her child imagination and the simple drawing line, never lost the confidence, innocence and freedom of drawing as she aged. Maybe that’s why she created one of the most beautiful stories for children ever told, Ernest et Célestine. Because the images alone could tell the story. The warmth the storyteller has for her characters, the warmth and joy they have for each other, the friendly complicity, humour and tolerance they use to overcomes every situation, the way they draw lessons through mutual listening and understanding from their everyday life adventures and misadventures… these are values that should enter a child’s world early and never leave him as he grows.

I have recently had the pleasure to talk to Fanny Husson-Ollagnier from Fondation Monique Martin, the foundation that so beautifully carries on the artist’s legacy and the values she stood for, about Monique Martin the painter and Gabrielle Vincent the illustrator.

“Ernest et Célestine musiciens des rues”, Gabrielle Vincent/Monique Martin. Duculot/Casterman.
Courtesy of Fondation Monique Martin

Monique Martin is best known worldwide for her illustrated books for children Ernest et Célestine, under her pseudonym, Gabrielle Vincent. It’s an incredible story for children, for its ability to convince with few words, but kind and the right gestures, that also derives from that style of illustration. Did she become interested in drawing from an early age?

Drawing had always been part of her life. She had been drawing everywhere from her earliest age, even on her school copy books.

As an upset lefty, she was writing at school with her right hand, and while writing she was often drawing at the same time with her left hand. Drawing portraits as well as nature or illustrating traditional tales.

Later, when she was an arts student, drawing illustrations for postcards became a student job.

“What she really enjoyed in children’s illustration
and meant with it was the line drawing thing.”

She was already an appreciated painter when she started to focus on illustration. Where did her interest in children’s illustrations originate?

As I’ve said, she began drawing as she was a little girl and found illustrating children postcards was a good way to earn some money as a student, but when she really came to a sort of full-time children illustrating job, what she really enjoyed in it and meant with it was the line drawing thing. She had always been very good at line drawing and children’s illustration was a great opportunity to do a job out of this art and be a sort of unique artist in it.

Monsieur Dasnoy, Monique Martin. Fondation Monique Martin


Why did she change her name to Gabrielle Vincent for her illustrated works?

Her name as a painter was her birth name, Monique Martin. With this name she had made a good reputation and her works of art were often exhibited in Brussels galleries. In the 70’s, she began being tired of mondanities and thinking of how to escape it all she started drawing illustrations under a new name Gabrielle Vincent, which were in fact the first names of two of her grandparents.

”Not only did the images carry the stories, they WERE the stories.”

When she started painting, she had a black and white period, then she started using colour. Why do you think she started with black and white?

She was encouraged in black and white drawing by her professor and mentor Mr de Smet, at Les beaux arts in Brussels. He had seen how talented she was and thought she would learn a lot and better her style with this economy of means.

Homme du désert, Monique Martin. Fondation Monique Martin

Is it true that she exhibited little as a painter, because the idea of ​​separating from her works and giving them a market value repelled her?

It was not a problem for her to seperate from her works, but she was not really interested in what people thought of them and she hated mondanities. She liked to exchange ideas with artists from other fields as she exchanged letters with the French writer Daniel Pennac for about ten years; he was asking her what she thought of his texts and she was asking him about her drawings.
What other artists did she exchange ideas with? Or was there any other artist she was particularly inspired by?

I am not sure whether she exchanged ideas with other artists, but she was very fond of the British illustrator Arthur Rackam (1867-1939). She also often spoke of Ernest H. Shepard, the Winnie the Pooh illustrator.

”Un jour, un chien”, Gabrielle Vincent/Monique Martin. Fondation Monique Martin


In 1982, she published Un jour, un chien (A Day, A Dog), the story in black and white of a wandering and the suffering of an abandoned dog on the side of a road. As I mentioned earlier, Monique’s stories were of few words, but this one is images alone. She believed in the power of the images. Did she always seek for the images to carry the story?

She did always seek for the images to carry the story and, even more, I would say she did not like words. If it had been her decision and not the publisher’s, Ernest and Célestine would have been stories without words. Not only did the images carry the stories, they were the stories. Maybe (that’s my interpretation), she accepted to put words on them to allow adults with a lack of imagination to also enter her world.
I like your interpretation. I was actually leafing through my son’s Ernest & Célestine books and was thinking how the story would have stood without the words. It almost feels she was reluctant in attaching words to the story. What do you think is the biggest mistake parents are prone to making when it comes to the creativity of their children?

In Monique Martin’s case, I think it really came from her personality. For what concerns the parents’ mistake about creativity, I would say it often comes from the parents’ desire that their children practise arts in a certain way without being free of choosing their own way, and with the aim of an outcome.
Did she mostly draw from imagination or did she also like to observe and be inspired by the world?

She mostly drew from real life; when she drew people at the tribunal in Brussels, she spent hours there every day for months; to draw gitans she was wandering in the Marolles district in Brussels; for Ernest and Célestine, she inspired herself from the moments with her nephews in her house Place du Chatelain in Brussels.

All the landscapes were hers, be it the parks in Brussels, the Foret de Soignes or the desert landscapes she visited many times in Egypt, Morocco, etc.

”L’oeuf”, Monique Martin. Fondation Monique Martin


Could you tell me a little about the album titled L’oeuf, a story that reflects only too well the modern society and remains incredibly current today?

L’oeuf is both very interesting and intriguing. It’s quite different from the rest of her work. It’s the reflection of what she feared would happen to the world if humans went on badly using the planet. It was really a precursor book; and she used the drawing line once again.
I would like to return to Ernest & Célestine. Why do you think these stories have been so successful worldwide?

There were and are so successfull because they are what we call “classics”. They are not getting old, they are not linked to any fashion. They have universal values, with a very unique way of drawing that has inspired so many artists.
I am thinking of a line from one of the books, from Musiciens des rues, when a leak in the roof causes worries to Ernest because he has no money to pay for it, and when Célestine asks him if he’s upset, he answers: “No, I’m just thinking.” And that is in fact the right answer a caring parent would give to a child asking about a grown-up problem. So I think you are absolutely right, Gabrielle not only chose the words for parents, but she chose the right words. Do you have a favourite Ernest et Célestine book?

My absolute favourite is La chambre de Joséphine. It’s the one when they are waiting for a boring and snobbish auntie of Ernest’s, and preparing a room for her whereas they have no money and no furniture and it’s raining in the room, and they find ways of installing a nice, cosy room and dont’s stop having fun while doing it.

”La Montgolfiére”, Monique Martin, 1996. Fondation Monique Martin


Note: You can find the Ernest et Célestine books here, or you can check with your favourite independent local bookshop. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.

Ernest et Célestine the film / Fondation Monique Martin



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