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First major exhibition devoted to Don Freeman opens at the Museum of the City of New York
High Above the Stage of Carousel . . . , ca. 1950. Museum of the City of New York.

NEW YORK, NY.- A City for Corduroy: Don Freeman’s New York, on view at the Museum of the City of New York from November 21, 2018, through June 23, 2019, is the first major exhibition devoted to Freeman’s work as a chronicler of New York City life. Freeman is best known as the author and illustrator of Corduroy, listed by the National Education Association as one of the top 100 children’s books of all time. But before he ever illustrated a children’s book, Freeman spent more than 20 years depicting New York City and its residents.

“Don Freeman was the quintessential New Yorker. After arriving in New York as a young man, he became enchanted with the city and captured the spirit and human drama of it in his illustrations, posters, and children’s books,” said Whitney W. Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director and President of the Museum of the City of New York. “We are fortunate to have many of Freeman’s works in our permanent collection and are delighted to present this exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the publication of his classic children’s book Corduroy.”

The exhibition showcases Freeman’s use of different media and features approximately 50 works, including oil paintings, lithographs, drawings, watercolors, sketches, and issues of Freeman’s magazine Newsstand. The works on view have been primarily culled from the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York and also include original drawings and watercolors featured in Freeman’s Corduroy books that are on loan from the Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota. Through three sections—“City Life,” “Stage Life,” and “Corduroy and Friends”—the exhibition highlights Freeman’s charming works as they capture the full range of the city’s energy and chaos as well as its still, isolated moments.

Curator Morgen Stevens-Garmon: “Whether his subject was the stage hand at work, the ordinary New Yorker going home on the train, or the small, stuffed animal waiting patiently on the shelf, Don Freeman captured unseen moments and in them he found beauty and wonder.”

City Life
Don Freeman (1908–1978) arrived in New York City from California in 1928, just shy of his 20th birthday. He immediately began to draw his impressions of the city on scraps of paper and in small notebooks. Freeman believed that “being part of this seething, turbulent, fabulous family [of New Yorkers] was a privilege that brought with it a living proof . . . that all people could live together if they but would.”

He eked out a living playing trumpet at night and took classes at the Art Students League during the day. Late one evening, engrossed in drawing a fellow subway passenger, Freeman absentmindedly left his trumpet behind on the train. This incident struck him as an omen that he should resolve to be an artist rather than a musician.

Stage Life
Freeman came to New York to study art but he could not escape the thrall of another early love: the theater. Shortly after moving to New York, he sold his first drawing to the New York Herald Tribune for publication in the Sunday drama section. Freeman’s theatrical drawings were published in The New York Times, the New York World, and Theatre Magazine, among others. He also created illustrations for theatrical posters and programs, notably the poster and Playbill art for the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947.

Corduroy and Friends
Today Don Freeman is best remembered as the author and illustrator of Corduroy, which was first published in 1968. The book featured an African-American girl at a time when few children’s books acknowledged America’s racial diversity. Freeman wrote or illustrated nearly 40 books over the next 30 years, sometimes collaborating with his wife Lydia. With “Corduroy and Friends,” the exhibition takes a look at the early drafts and working drawings that went into his city‑centric books: Corduroy (1968), Pet of the Met (1953), Norman the Doorman (1959), Hattie the Backstage Bat (1970), and A Pocket for Corduroy (1978).

In 1976 New York Mayor Abraham D. Beame honored Freeman with a citation for his unreserved love of the city and its people as represented in his art.

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