Ludwig Bemelmans and the legendary murals of The Carlyle Hotel

Artists throughout history have created and given away masterpieces in exchange for unpayable bills: think Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise or the Florence Futurists at Le Giubbe Rosse. Ludwig Bemelmans is arguably part of a similar exchange, with work situated in the expensive air of a Rosewood Hotel, filled with the rich and famous, but in reality, these drawings underscored a life of hardship and mental struggle.

A lot of these ‘gifts’ have since however been removed and exhibited at various locations around the world. But there is a particular artist’s work which has managed to stand the test of time and remain on the very walls it was painted onto over 70 years ago, the legendary murals of The Carlyle Hotel by Bemelmans. 

Painted when the bar opened in 1947, the impressionist murals covering the walls of the Bemelmans Bar at the iconic Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of New York City has become with the help of famous guests and resident musicians, a legendary piece of artwork.

Created by the Austro-Hungarian born artist Ludwig Bemelmans, best known for the classic Madeline children’s books, the murals of the Bemelmans Bar depict a whimsical, expansive scene of central park in his signature style. Whilst most people may never have heard of these murals, or of Ludwig Bemelmans himself, you have probably seen them without even realising in various films and television shows. 

Think back to the bar in The Sex and the City Movie where Carrie took Louise for drinks, or more recently to any piece of advertisement for Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks. Whilst we may have all been drinking in the words of Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, the real focus should have been the buttery yellows that adorn the back walls of the bar.

Who is Bemelmans and what influenced his work?

As aforementioned, Bemelmans is best known for writing and illustrating the Madeline books, which was later made into a television series and live-action feature film. Whilst these stories of a little red-haired girl who lives at a boarding school in Paris are light-hearted and made for children, there are a lot of darker influences in Bemelmans work than meets the surface. The strict, but loveable Miss Clavel who takes charge of the girls at Madeline’s school is actually said to be modelled on Bemelmans childhood governess. At a young age, his father had an affair with his governess and when she fell pregnant, they ran away together and left Bemelmans and his mother. It later transpired that his father then left the governess and she committed suicide.

Bemelmans moved to Germany with his mother around this time and struggled with school. Instead, he left and became apprenticed in the hospitality industry. Bemelmans was subsequently mistreated by one of the staff members at his work, being whipped and abused. After laughing off threats of firing a gun at his bully, Bemelmans pulled the trigger on him and shot him. Faced with reform school or emigration to the United States, he chose the latter.

After moving to America, Bemelmans started his writing career and had his work published in The New YorkerVogue and Town & Country. Moving in between these creative circles, he became acquainted with the hotel which was fast becoming a gathering spot for socialites, celebrities and world leaders. Opened in 1930, the same year as the Chrysler Building, The Carlyle was built with the intention of rivalling the grand hotels of Europe.

Commissioned to paint the walls of a new bar in the hotel, instead of payment, Bemelmans is rumoured to have exchanged his work for a year and a half stay at the hotel with his family, others claim the murals were painted to settle some large, unpayable bills he had racked up. 

Regardless of how, or why, they ended up on the walls of The Carlyle Hotel, these painted cartoons have become part of the history and glamour of New York City. The only public-facing commission Bemelmans created; the murals on the walls of Bemelmans Bar have helped define an epoch of modern American history.

What is so important about The Carlyle?

As anybody who has seen Always at The Carlyle will know, the hotel is synonymous with discretion, a trait which has made it popular with celebrities, royalty and presidents. In fact, the “most famous elevator ride in history” happened at the hotel where a lift was shared by Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs. The hotel was also an “unofficial” New York home to an entire stream of 20th century Presidents and notably the meeting spot for President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Not only has the hotel housed the unbelievably famous, aside from Bemelmans, the hotel is home to the work of numerous artists and designer such as Jan Weenix, Dorothy Draper and Thierry Despont. It is the kind of place where you’d be washing your hands in the bathroom and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Tom Hanks or Mariah Carey in the next basin. On a level parallel, and possibly exceeding La Closerie des Lilas for its time, The Carlyle is a space of unreality, where the impossible becomes possible. 

Light in the dark

Like many artists in the first half of the 20th century, Bemelmans notes his work as a form of therapy from a struggled existence. Described in a letter to First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who wished to collaborate with Bemelmans on a new book, the Madeline books were “therapy in the dark hours”. Much like the history of New York itself, we cherry-pick the glamourous nostalgia of old-school Americana without registering the depravity and darkness which gave birth to it.

Nevertheless, the murals of The Carlyle’s Bemelmans Bar are a testimony to a bygone time where art could be bartered from its creators for unpaid bills. It’s unimaginable now to think of big names like Tracy Emin or Grayson Perry working off unpaid bills on a hotel wall. 

Whether he was paying his dues or not, Bemelmans has made an undeniable imprint on New York society. In carving those swift brushstrokes, he has transcended the historic place of the artist and created a backdrop for the discretions of scandalous world leaders and drunken film stars. Whether they gather to tinkle on the piano or pronounce a new world order, Bemelmans illustrations have become the scrolling theatre walls with which to witness the bohemia of modern New York. 

Artwork courtesy of Fergus Byron