The Velveteen Rabbit: Questionable Classic

As the mother of two girls, I treasure each and every chance to share books with them. But there is one book I will probably make them wait to read until they are much, much older: Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Became Real

I realize it is tantamount to children’s literature heresy in some circles, but I consider The Velveteen Rabbit one of the most deplorable works of fiction ever to come off the presses. I’ve hated it for as long as I can remember. The following excerpt is the portion that stands out most in my mind (and apparently in the minds of others – a brief search revealed that it is among the most popular readings at weddings):

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Here we have the Skin Horse – who has obviously been at the receiving end of a great deal of abuse at the hands of his young charge – providing sage advice to the Rabbit protaganist about becoming real – a painful process that requires being “loved” until you are used up and “shabby”. The Rabbit takes the Skin Horse’s advice to heart, and after his brief life as an abused and (later) discarded toy, he is transformed by the “nursery magic Fairy” into a real rabbit and allowed to live the remainder of his days in “Rabbit-land” (I kid you not, that’s what it’s called).

For some reason, this sadistic tale, which promotes martyrdom as the one true path to a higher plane of existence, is lauded as a classic and considered an indispensable tome to share with impressionable youngsters.

While I’m not one for unbridled egoism, the idea that you are not “real” until you have abandoned your identity and someone has loved you to pieces (literally, in the case of the Velveteen Rabbit), is just plain sick. Apparently, I am alone in feeling this way.

Margery Williams’ classic tale of a rabbit who allows himself to be worn to death in the name of “love” is rather reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s loathsome The Giving Tree, but far more reprehensible. You will recall that in Silverstein’s tale, a tree gives herself to a young boy until all that remains of her is a stump, which he then uses as a stool. If Silverstein’s story was truly about a tree, it wouldn’t be too dreadful (though mother nature certainly gets the short end of the stick!), but even a child can tell that the story is meant as some sort of allegory for self-sacrificing maternal love.

Oddly enough, Silverstein’s story has been at the receiving end of far more vitriol than William’s book. Roughly 1/5 of the Amazon reviews are in the one star range, and many readers highlight its disturbingly anti-feminist/abusive undertones. But even when viewed as allegory, Silverstein’s misogynist tale is still superior to The Velveteen Rabbit, because at least the intended audience (children) is meant to identify with the self-indulgent child, not the tree. Furthermore, most kids are, at the very least, surprised and annoyed by the boy’s selfishness.

In sharp contrast to the criticism launched at The Giving Tree, surprisingly few readers seem to find anything wrong with The Velveteen Rabbit. Yet, in The Velveteen Rabbit, the child-reader is drawn deep into the psyche of the rabbit, and manipulated into believing that maturity is about putting up with abuse at the hands of those you “love,” in the hopes that their abuse will somehow make you “real.” While the backlash against Silverstein’s book has been rather pronounced, William’s tale has enjoyed such consistent popularity that its disturbing message has even spawned a self-help book, entitled The Velveteen Principles (Limited Holiday Edition): A Guide to Becoming Real, Hidden Wisdom from a Children’s Classic. As with most self-help books, this work chooses to focus on becoming “real” as a process of authentication, in which one stops worrying about the superficial world and becoming more spiritually minded. Most adults seem to approach the book from a similar standpoint, preferring to gloss over or minimize the significance of the Rabbit sacrificing his life for a rather ungrateful and decidedly unworthy figure to whom he has attached his entire sense of self-worth (this is made all the worse by the fact that, as previously mentioned, the Rabbit has a very child-like perspective and is clearly meant to be a character that children will personally identify with).

Apparently generations of parents and caregivers have decided that it’s perfectly acceptable to celebrate the idea that love means having “most of your hair…loved off…your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” I can understand giving your life for someone you love, but it’s not a “sacrifice” that you make to some greedy bugger that makes your life miserable and then tosses you in a rubbish heap.

I realize that many of you will think I’m too sensitive about the book, but I think that’s the key problem: children take what they read very seriously! They read and re-read them dozens of times. The books we love as children significantly influence our worldview. I adore children’s literature, but this is one book I don’t plan on sharing with my kids until they’re old enough to apply some critical thinking skills to the subject.

There has been a lot of exciting news over the past few months about art on the web. Google recently launched their Art Project, Twitter is teeming with artists, art lovers and art historians, and H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem just launched the Art History Database, which permits visitors to search some of the best art and history sites on the web for relevant art-related content.

Yesterday, another exciting entrant launched the beta version of their site. aims to connect visitors to new art through their website. Many of you are likely familiar with Pandora – the music service that automatically builds playlists for listeners based on their preferences. aims to offer the ability do something similar, helping visitors discover new artists by using their “magic tour.”

The magic tour works by showing you a set of four paintings, from which you choose your favorite (or you can skip the entire set if you don’t like any of them).  This is done 3-4 times, after which a slide show is created based on your earlier choices.

The site mentions plans to develop applications for mobile and tablet devices, with the goal of sharing profits with the museums, galleries and artists featured on the site. Since there will be no cost to museums and galleries, this could be a really wonderful way for museums to increase revenues – especially when times are tough and arts funding is in so much jeopardy across the globe.

I was a bit disappointed that the website is weighted so heavily in the direction of pre-20th century art, although there are works by early 20th century artists like Matisse. Of course, as anyone who blogs knows all too well, it can be tough to get permission to show modern and contemporary works. This is a shame, but I hope things will change going forward. Obviously, Artfinder doesn’t want to get slapped with a copyright suit their first day in business! Hopefully once artists (or their estates) are aware of the site, they will be willing to consider allowing their images to be displayed.

I really like the concept. The website has begun with 250,000 artworks, and you have the option to share paintings (right now it’s just paintings and sketches, though they have said that they will be adding sculpture in the future) with friends through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

I was a bit disappointed with the magic tour, which is probably largely due to the fact that I am in a bit of a modern/contemporary art mood at the moment, and there is little of that on the website. So, I chose a few 19th century paintings. The results seemed a bit random, but I did find a few artists I was not familiar with. I liked most of what I saw, but I’m not sure if that was because of the accuracy of the “magic tour”, or because I’m not that picky!

Overall, I think it’s a great site and I’m very impressed with what Artfinder is trying to do. It’s still in beta, so there are some wrinkles to be sorted out. However, I would definitely recommend it to readers of this blog, and I am very excited to see that art is alive and thriving in our web 2.0 world.

St. George and the Dragon, 1811 by Franz Pforr, Image courtesy Wikimedia

October Issue of the Art History Carnival

Welcome to the October 1, 2010 edition of art history carnival! I received a wide variety of submissions this month – everything from classic art history articles to a review of DNA art. And while I confess that I’m still a little confused about the DNA art, I have a feeling my husband would probably find it interesting.


Brenda Chapman has written an introductory piece on the 10 Essential Architectural Movements of the 20th Century. Name as many architectural movements as you can before you go to the website, and see how many are listed!

Alexandra Korey presents Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, Mannerist Tendencies posted at


Helen Webberley has done a fascinating portrait of the life of artist Reuven Rubin  posted at ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly

Gábor Endrődi shares a post written by Zsombor Jékely on the subject of the medieval fresco decoration of The medieval parish church of Pest (part II.) – A remarkable discovery posted at Medieval Hungary.

Hermes has done a fascinating review of John Everett Millais’ The Romans Leaving Britain on Pre-Raphaelite Art

H Niyazi has shared a great piece by art historian Monica Bowen entitled boy bitten by a lizard: posner vs. gilbert posted at Alberti’s Window, saying, “Monica Bowen explores the allegory of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by A Lizard, discussing prevalent and controversial theories that surround the Baroque Master.”

H Niyazi also submitted an interesting piece called A Grey Heron posted at Tempesta News, saying, “Dr Frank DeStefano uncovers a stunning piece of evidence supporting the spiritual reading of Giorgione’s mysterious ‘Tempesta’.” (Thank you for all the great articles, Hasan!).

Emily Brand presents The Many Guises of Marie Antoinette posted at The Artist’s Progress….

Helen Webberley presents Che Guevara and the suffering Christ posted at ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly, saying, “Che Guevara probably would have been thought of as a Christ-like figure in devoutly Catholic Bolivia anyhow. But there was an important post-mortem photo that was remarkably similar to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp 1632 and Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ 1490. This reinforced the image of Guevara’s corpse as being Christ-like in its suffering.”

Susan Benford presents an overview of some of Michelangelo’s best-known paintings. posted at Famous Paintings Reviewed – An Art History Blog

Kendall Roberts presents The Evolution of Pop Art in the Twenty First Century – Neo DNAism posted at Neo DNAism.

Finally, if you are in the mood for a bit of a mystery, Dr Ben Harvey presents a bit of an art history thriller with his post on the poem Art’s Quota (part one) located at Emanata.


Alexandra Korey provides a fascinating insight to restorations at the Chiostro dello Scalzo in Florence, including descriptions and images of some rarely seen frescoes in his Chiostro dello Scalzo – hidden frescoes in Florence! | TuscanyArts posted at Tuscany Arts

That concludes this edition. I would like to apologize if anyone missed the deadline due to a dating problem on the Blog Carnival website. I’m not sure exactly what was going on, but I created an upcoming edition numerous times and it didn’t seem to show up on the site. I’m glad that so many people submitted their articles anyway! Submit your blog article to the next edition of
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Proust’s Madeleine

As a fan of fine literature and food, I was curious when I first ran across Edmund Levin’s article for Slate “The Way the Cookie Crumbles: How much did Proust know about Madeleines?” 

In Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator tastes some crumbs from the bottom of his teacup and experiences a flood of childhood memories: 
“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses.”

In his article, Levin argues that Proust pretty much made the whole thing up. A typical madeleine leaves no crumbs he argues, and worse yet, he claims that the crumbs have no taste. 

Like Proust’s child narrator, I’ve loved madeleines since I was a kid. When I was a young girl growing up in Olympia, my mom would take me to Batdorf and Bronson after ballet or violin and I’d always have one of their delicious madeleines (I think I tried the cookies with pretty much every beverage there – but tea was the best). My mom and I would chat about art, music and all manner of delightfully grown-up topics while taking in the aroma of roasting coffee beans and thumbing through independent newspapers. Those are fabulous memories. 

At least I thought they were! 

For a moment after reading Levin’s article, I questioned my childhood experiences. Were Proust and I both crazy? I knew I’d tasted those crumbs, but it had been a while. Surely this food writer must be right, and I wrong. There’s no way he would have made this up…right? 

To see if I could replicate some childhood memories and have a “Proust moment” of my own, I sat down with Julia Child’s recipe from The Way to Cook and the madeleine pan I received for Mother’s day. I figure that if anyone could settle this once and for all, it was Julia. 

Here’s Julia’s recipe (more or less). 

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. flour + 1 T for preparing pans
5 oz. butter
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 t. vanilla

Now, while I fiddle with Julia’s ingredients a bit (she calls for “drops of lemon juice and vanilla” – whatever that means), I stick to her preparation guide fairly religiously: 

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Measure 1/4 c. eggs into bowl. Beat in sugar and flour. Blend and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Madelines 015


  • Melt butter in saucepan. Bring to a boil and let brown slightly (it should be a lovely caramel colour). Place 1 1/2 T. in a bowl and set aside (very important!)
  • Stir the rest of the butter over ice until cool but still liquid
  • Blend the cooled butter with the reserved 1/4 c. of the eggs into the butter with the salt, lemon juice, rind and vanillaMadelines 019
  • Mix remaining butter (1T) with the 1T of flour you have reserved, and use the mixture to prepare the madeleine pans. 
  • Divide batter into 24 lumps of 1 T each (okay, so I don’t follow this part so religiously – measuring 1 T for each madeleine should do the trick)Madelines 010
  • Bake 13-15 minutes or until browned around the edges and a teensy bit on top!Madelines 005

I love this recipe. I put a fair bit of lemon juice in my madeleines. I like them that way – they smell positively divine when they come out of the oven! And Julia’s trick of mixing the melted butter with the flour and using the mix to prep the pans is pure genius – there’s never so much as a speck of batter left clinging to the pan. All you need to do afterwards is rinse the pans with warm water. Don’t use any detergent – it’s unnecessary, and can harm the seasoning of the pan. Also, don’t buy a nonstick madeleine pan! It’s a terrible waste – not only are most nonstick pans junk, but even the expensive ones won’t allow your madeleines to brown properly.

These delightful cookies are pure poetry, and will leave delightfully perfumed crumbs in the bottom of your teacup after dunking. Feel free to use your spoon to capture a few, a la Proust, when no-one’s looking!

Now to the controversy. Levin extrapolates several things about Proust’s madeleines from the text, all of which seem silly to me. Most importantly, he argues that Proust’s madeleine would have needed to be very dry, in order produce such a quantity of crumbs. Now, this is plain nonsense. Has this guy ever dunked a donut? 

I could go on… but for now, I think I’ll just enjoy my madeleines. 

Art and the iPad

Apple’s iPad will be coming to Canada on May 28, and it is already making waves in the United States. Touted by Apple as “the best way to experience the web,” the iPad is everything we’ve come to expect from Apple – sleek, sexy and designed to inspire envy. But what impact will the iPad have on the art world?

Digital artists are already excited about the art apps being offered for the iPad, which allow users to draw using either fingers or a stylus using any number of digital brushes. This enthusiasm is hardly surprising, given that last June an illustration done entirely on the iPhone using the iTunes Brushes app graced the cover of The New Yorker. The magazine’s art editor, later told The New York Times he appreciated the fact that the cover didn’t feel digital, and that the image was “free flowing…poetic and magical.” The artist, Jorge Colombo, confessed that one of the biggest attractions of working in this medium was its low profile and portability, which permitted him to stand for over an hour on 42nd Street in Manhattan without being bothered by curious onlookers. Obviously, that would have been a rather more difficult task, if he’d been working on an easel! (or even with a sketchbook).

Of course, not everyone is thrilled. Performance artist Kenny Irwin of dOvtastic Microwave Theatre has already engaged artistically with the iPad – by microwaving it. Yup, there are some who feel that the best response to this new technology is to destroy it using less advanced technology (or perhaps I’ve missed the point – if there even is one).

But others are making more optimistic use of the iPad.  Claudio Arango of Bogotá, Colombia, has become the first known artist to conduct an exhibit of his artwork using the iPad.  

Below you can see a film of Arango demonstrating his art to passersby using the iPad:

On his blog, Arango states that his goal is for his artwork to be “móvil, remezclado, y libre” (“mobile, remixed and free”). It’s a noble manifesto, and one that seems appropriate for art created on such exciting new technology. Of course, some will note that the people who encounter Arango on the street may be more interested in the iPad than what’s on it. This is a valid point, but I am intrigued by Arango’s art, and by his forward thinking approach. Arango does digital artwork, primarily female nudes, and he is highly tech-savvy (he blogs and is on flickr, twitter, YouTube, tumblr and Facebook). With more and more artists taking advantage of the sort of presence social media affords, it won’t be long before technologies like the iPad are as important to artists as paintbrushes were in the past. The web has already become the primary medium in which people encounter art, how long before it becomes the principal tool for creating art? Of course, as an art blogger, I may be a bit biased, but when you consider today’s architects and designers, most simply could not function without computer aided design, and artists are quickly joining the ranks of the technology- dependent. This may be disturbing to some, but then again, thousands of years ago, artists who painted on cave walls were making use of frightening new technology!

Now, I’m not sure if digital art is the future of art, but it will certainly be a key component of the art world of the future. And how could it not play a pivotal role? Representing yet another portable, web-friendly device, the iPad ensures that art will never be more than a click away. It will change the way an entire generation interacts with visual media. It’s strange, but the iPad may very well be the first place my daughter creates her own art.

What do you think? What place does emerging technology like the iPad have in the art world, and how might it change the way we look at art? I’d love to hear your thoughts (and if you are an artist who is already brainstorming ways to take advantage of this new medium, or others like it, please join in!).