ExhibitionsWitness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney
Past Exhibition

Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney

October 12, 2013 – January 5, 2014

Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney, is the first major exhibition to provide an overview of Caldecott Medal winner Jerry Pinkney’s 50-year career as an illustrator and artist. More than 140 of Pinkney’s luminous watercolor illustrations will be on display, including work from his classic picture books and commissions for a wide variety of clients, including the National Park Service. Explore nine of those treasures in more detail here.

Brer Rabbit Goes Back to Mr. Man’s Garden, Illustration for The Tales of Uncle Remus, 1987

Watercolor and pencil on paper
Collection of the artist
©1987 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.In 1987, Jerry Pinkney was invited to illustrate The Tales of Uncle Remus, retold by American author, educator, and musician Julius Lester. He was enthusiastic about the opportunity but also understood the book’s controversial nature. Here Pinkney illustrates the moment when the clever and mischievous Brer Rabbit is caught in the gardener’s trap after stealing his vegetables. Pinkney’s illustrations capture the spirit of the collection of short stories, leaving the stereotypical behind.

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Cotton Club, Illustration for Sweethearts of Rhythm, 2008

Mixed media on paper
Collection of the artist
©2009 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.Marilyn Nelson’s syncopated poetry jives perfectly with Pinkney’s watercolors in this story about the Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular interracial all-girl swing band that toured the United States from 1937 to 1946. Pinkney decided to do something new with this book, and set about considering how to make his paintings reflect the layered climate of the World War II and the swing band eras. His use of collage — layering brightly colored papers printed with big band music — reflects the excitement and energy of clubs filled to the brim in anticipation of the Sweethearts of Rhythm.

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Little Red Riding Hood Met a Sly Wolf, Illustration for Little Red Riding Hood, 2007

Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper
Collection of the artist
©2007 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.“Little Red Riding Hood was a favorite story of mine,” said Jerry Pinkney. He began work on the book as the seasons were turning from autumn to winter, which may have affected his decision to set the scene against a backdrop of snow. This made for a beautiful contrast of Red Riding Hood’s coat and dark curls against the white background. Other rich details such as Little Red Riding Hood’s striped stockings, the printed fabric tucked neatly into her basket, and the branches laden with snow gives new depth to this familiar tale.

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The Old African, Book jacket illustration for The Old African, 2005

Watercolor and pencil on paper
Collection of the artist
©2005 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.The story of Ybo Landing inspired author Julius Lester’s masterful book, The Old African. It is a stirring legend infused with magical realism that he wrote with Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations in mind. In this cover illustration, the main character, known as the “Old African” is show waist-deep in the ocean, facing the ships of the slave traders that will soon arrive to abduct and enslave the people of his village. To create the illustrations, Pinkney visited the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to immerse himself in information about the enslavement of the Ybo, and talked with John Oriji, an African historian of Ybo origin. Illustrations for The Old African took two years to complete — a labor of love in tribute to those whose struggle is remembered.

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John Henry, Cover illustration for John Henry, 1994

Watercolor and pencil on paper
Collection of the artist
©1994 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.Jerry Pinkney worked closely with author Julius Lester on retelling the legend and ballad of John Henry, a childhood favorite. They hoped to create an “African American hero that would inspire everyone.” He includes details that point to aspects of John Henry’s legend. Pinkney painted Henry’s two famous twenty-pound hammers made from four foot long whale bones, the ringing of which could be heard from miles around when they hit rock. The hammer’s handles are streaked with rainbows that always appeared when he swung them.

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Grrr (Lion Picks Up Mouse), Illustration for The Lion & the Mouse, 2009

Watercolor and pencil on paper
Collection of the artist
©2009 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.The story of The Lion & the Mouse has been a personal favorite of Pinkney’s since his youth. “As a child I was inspired to see the majestic king of the jungle saved by the determination and hard work of a humble rodent; as an adult I’ve come to appreciate how both animals are equally large at heart.” Expressive and beautifully drawn, Pinkney’s animals are humanized but remain true to themselves. Pinkney relied on very little text to tell the story of The Lion & the Mouse, and in this illustration, the only words are the painted “Grrr” and “Squeak” of both of the animals. The lion has caught the mouse, who hangs from the cat’s paw in fright.

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In the Melon Bed, Illustration for Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, 1997

Watercolor and pencil on paper
Collection of the artist
©1997 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.Carefully observed animal behavior and the distinct characteristics of each creature are reflected in Pinkney’s images in the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Shifting visual perspectives, from a birds-eye to worms-eye view, creates a sense of drama and excitement that brings readers eye-to-eye with the animal kingdom. In this illustration, the curious mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is having a conversation with two saddened tailor-birds, whose baby was eaten by the dreaded snake, Nag. This illustration is painted from a bird’s-eye view, and includes realistic renderings of the tailor birds and their nest.

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Then the Rain Came, Illustration for Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, 1998

Watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, and pencil on paper
Collection of the artist
©1998 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.“As a boy growing up in the 1940s, Westerns were huge. We all played cowboys, practicing our quick draw with toy holsters and guns,” remembered the artist. “I found out later that many cowboys were black and Mexican, as were stagecoach drivers, saloon proprietors, laborers, and explorers.” Pinkney’s exquisite depictions of horses in every posture and gait came through careful observation, and their behavioral patterns were gleaned from experts with an understanding of horses who willingly shared their knowledge. In this illustration, the postures of both the horse and rider are skillfully rendered, both bent against the wind and rain. The loose and painterly treatment of the rain is made incredibly atmospheric and believable because of the richness of detail in both characters’ expressions.

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Take the “A” Train, Illustration for Sweethearts of Rhythm, 2008

Mixed media on paper
Collection of the artist
©2009 Jerry Pinkney Studio. All rights reserved.Marilyn Nelson’s collection of poems for Sweethearts of Rhythm, are accompanied by Pinkney’s interpretive illustrations. Each poem is narrated by a different instrument played by a member of the famous band. In this illustration, Ernestine “Tiny” Davis’s trumpet “speaks” of how playing music was like a form of prayer, and that the joy that accompanied the music helped drown out the despair brought on by World War II. In this dynamic image, a couple dances to a beloved swing standard. Pinkney integrated torn music scores as collage elements that expressed the swirling movements of the couple on the dance floor.

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Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, touches on themes such as the African-American experience, the wonders of classic literature and the wisdom in well-loved folk tales. The works in the exhibition celebrate small, extraordinary moments, as well as significant historical events, reflecting the artist’s belief in the transformative power of visual storytelling.
Pinkney’s beautiful paintings are created from pencil, colored pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor. His style is distinctive: his scenes are known for their vibrancy of color, finely crafted detail, and realistic portrayal of their characters. His sensitivity and talent in this medium have provided him the opportunity to illustrate over one hundred children’s books. His work has helped to advance multicultural and African-American themes in the world of children’s literature.
Whether recreating history or breathing new life into classic tales, his art is always about much more than just the appearance of things. Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney explores this gifted creator’s legacy through powerful images that offer insights into where we have been, who we are, and who we might become.


A native of Philadelphia, Jerry Pinkney (born 1939) studied at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). He has been illustrating children’s books since 1964 and has produced illustrations for more than 100 titles.
He received the Caldecott Medal in 2010 for the book The Lion & The Mouse, as well as five Caldecott Honor Medals, five Coretta Scott King Awards, four Coretta Scott King Honor Awards and many other accolades. His books have been translated into 16 languages and published in 14 different countries.
In addition to his work in children’s books, Pinkney has created illustrations for a wide variety of clients, including the United States Postal Service, National Park Service and National Geographic. Mr. Pinkney was appointed to serve on the United States Postal Service’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (1982-1992) and in 2001 was invited by First Lady Laura Bush to illustrate and design the White House Christmas Program. He has held professorships teaching art at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y.; the University of Delaware, Newark, Del.; and the University of Buffalo, Buffalo, N.Y. In 2003, Pinkney was appointed to the National Council of the Arts (2003-2009).
His art can be found in the permanent collections at the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine River Art Museum. Pinkney has exhibited in venues ranging from the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Ill., to the California African American Museum, Los Angeles, Calif. He has also exhibited in more than 100 group shows in the U.S., Japan, Russia, Italy, Taiwan and Jamaica. Pinkney lives with his wife, author Gloria Jean, in Westchester County, New York.