The World of Gennady Spirin

The Sea King’s Daughter A Russian Legend

Illustrating Tales and Stories for All Ages

By Wendy Greenberg | Photos courtesy of Gennady Spirin

While the work of artist and illustrator Gennady Spirin has been described as “realism,” he says that he doesn’t like that label. His distinctive illustrations of fairy tales, classic tales, and folk tales are the result of careful research and loving detail combined with imagination and interpretation.

And they resonate with children.

“Children have a realistic view of the world,” he explains. “That is why I try to make it look interesting to them. Children can’t draw what they see because they don’t have the skills yet, so it comes out childlike. They admire real objects the way they look, not a conceptual or a symbolic representation of it.”

Inspired by Renaissance masters, this philosophy has resulted in more than 50 books that are treasured and often handed down in families. His talent has caught the eye of singer and author Julie Andrews, for whom he illustrated her book Simeon’s Gift (written with Emma Walton Hamilton), and pop star Madonna, with whom he also collaborated on a book, Yakov and the Seven Thieves.  Former First Lady Laura Bush commissioned a large poster for a book fair that is now displayed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Illustration from The Lord is my Shepherd, the Twenty Third Psalm.

Hospitality and Tea

Despite his encounters with celebrity, Gennady Spirin is down to earth. A morning with Spirin, his son Andrei (who translated his father’s native Russian), and his wife Ria, in a modest townhome not far from Princeton, exuded hospitality —  including black, steeped tea (no bags) from a Russian supermarket in Pennsylvania —  surrounded by framed, lush illustrations and at least two large canvases in progress. A colorful painting from The Sea King’s Daughter: A Russian Legend (written by Aaron Shepard) adorns one wall. The original 70’ x 55’ acrylic painting that is seen in sections in the book, Jesus: His Life in Verses from the King James Holy Bible, graces another wall. Many other illustrations are displayed, and part of a large mural in progress for a New Brunswick church leans by a table of paints and brushes. The acrylic-painted canvas had to be ordered from India so it can be glued to the church wall.

Spirin is known for extensive research into all forms of art — architecture, fashion, landscapes — details that at first may seem unimportant. “This approach invites you to be a co-author, together with the author. It is important to depict the time period accurately. Children should be able see that Renaissance is different from Baroque. It is, in essence, a schooling, a way of educating them. A small child is learning about the world through the pages of a book. Architecture is important to reflect the world of that time. This way, the child can see the world objectively.

“This is the goal of the book and the illustrator, to show the beauty created by God. And in doing so, the illustrator becomes a co-creator.”

Everything that an illustrator does is his subjective, personal view of things, Spirin explains. His interpretation is an integral part of the process. “If he does not interpret what he sees, he will lose his personality.”

The illustrations, for example, in Frog Song: Life in the Boreal Forest with Brenda Z. Guiberson are full of imagination. The New York Times in 2013 called the book “an insanely gorgeous book about frogs . . .  nothing less than a springtime reverie. Bursting with detail, especially in the opulent end pages, Spirin’s tableaus of blooming lily pads, laden with flowers and frogs, resemble 17th-century Dutch still lifes in their awed contemplation of the natural world.”

Illustration from Jesus: His Life in Verses from the King James Holy Bible

Varied Stories and Themes

Spirin’s books cover many different themes. Some of his more well-known illustration work includes The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen, an illustrated alphabet book, and The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.

Some of the books are based on a painting itself, such as Spirin’s Jesus, The Lord is My Shepherd, the Twenty Third Psalm, and Perceval: King Arthur’s Knight of the Holy Grail (a retelling of the 12th-century Chretien de Troyes story retold by John Perkins). In these books, the large painting is segmented into all the illustrations.

For Perceval, Spirin painstakingly created the actual canvas. The foundation for this technique is a primer used on a wooden panel called levkas. This technique, he says, was widely used in the Middle Ages in Europe, as well as by the Early Renaissance masters. “This primer absorbs the paint very well and gives a good color that maintains the same qualities for centuries,” he explains. Masters including Fra Angelico and Botticelli used this technique, he adds. “The entire Russian and European iconography is based on this method.” Pigments prepared with egg yolks were used on top of the primer – Spirin used French egg tempera. “This method requires a lot of skill and time in order to achieve the desired result.”

This engagement with his subjects, and the deep thought that goes down to the very canvas, are what sets Spirin apart from some other illustrators. He is engaged with every one of his books. “It’s like giving birth to a child, and then letting them go on a journey,” he says.

He is the author of one book, Marta, commissioned by the publisher, which retells an experience saving a crow in Russia. The crow ended up living in his apartment “like a family member.” He recalls that a veterinarian said the crow would never fly, and proposed to amputate its wing. Spirin’s older son Ilya refused and, despite the prognosis, the bird did indeed fly away, Spirin says.

Russian Childhood

Spirin drew as a child, especially the trees in the forests. His grandmother was supportive, and he dedicated illustrations for The Tempest (adapted from Shakespeare by Ann Keay Beneduce) to his grandmother.

As a youth he studied at the Moscow Art School at the Academy of Art and was accepted into the prestigious Strogonov Art Institute of Moscow. After graduation he worked as a children’s illustrator for a Soviet publisher, but without reason the publisher terminated a contract with him for Gogol’s Sorochinskaya Yarmarka (The Fair at Sorochyntsi). It was published by Schreiber in Germany, and Spirin received the Grand Prize in Bologna, (Fiera de Bologna Honour) for this work. He also signed a contract with Schreiber to illustrate a “series of the best works of classical literature in the world.”

In the late 1980s Beneduce, a Princeton area editor and writer, went to Moscow to commission him to illustrate The White Cat for Orchard Books. The agency that represented Spirin shipped his illustrations to the United States, however the illustrations were never received, and were later found at Sheremetyevo International Airport, the main airport in Moscow. Because of the challenges involved in mailing illustrations from Russia, Dial Books and Philomel Books invited him to move to the United States. Preferring a small town to cities, he selected Princeton.

The Night Before Christmas

Christmas Birthday

Spirin is turning 70 this Christmas Day. Coincidentally, he has many holiday-themed illustrations which have become seasonal favorites. He created Nutcracker drawings commissioned by publisher Stewart, Tabori & Chang, and the Manhattan flagship Saks Fifth Avenue commissioned an image that traveled to Saks stores and highlighted their window displays.

Books with a holiday theme include Joy to the World, A Family Christmas Treasury (edited by Beneduce); Jesus; The Nutcracker (by E.T.A. Hoffman, based on a new translation by Aliana Brodmann); The Christmas Story According to the Gospel of Matthew & Luke; The Twelve Days of Christmas, and many other books based on fairy tales, folk tales, and stories of faith.

Over his successful career, he has won many prestigious awards for children’s literature illustrations, including the Golden Apple Award Biennale of Illustration (Bratislava); The Grand Prize VI Premio International Castellon D’Illustraceo de Libres per a Infants (Barcelona); five Gold Medals of The Society of Illustrators (New York); four Best Illustrated Book of the Year (New York Times); Fiera di Bologna Honour (Grand Prize); and others.

Ilya, who saved the crow, is now grown. He is an author and illustrator himself. Son Gennady has developed apps in the New York tech scene, and Andrei, the son born in Princeton, works in the automotive business. Spirin enjoyed coaching Andrei and Gennady as they played soccer.

Message for Parents

As an involved parent himself, he has a message for other parents:  Turn the pages of a book.

“A computer is a useful thing, but it is just a means to an end, not an experience. Electronic devices,” he says, “carry information, but are no substitute for the engagement one gets when one holds a book, and turns the pages. Without the physical book, you lose a chunk of your soul. It is the true connection, the soul connection.

“When a child holds a book, he or she holds a work of art. He can communicate with it, he can keep it next to his pillow. Computers do not prompt you to think, imagine in the same manner. A physical book invites you to imagine things. When a child uses a computer, he is distracted from a mystical nature of the word. When he holds a book, he enters the world of the written word, he enters the world of art, and he actively participates in it.

“Even touching pages of a book means that you are interacting with an intimate work of art.”

Events Showing the Works of Gennady Spirin:

December 21 at 5:30pm: Spirin will be at a book signing at the Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton. More information about this Storytime event for children is available at www.morven.org. Books will be available for sale.

November 17 through February 10, 2019: Spirin’s artwork will be displayed at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. His The Night Before Christmas (from the poem by Clement Clarke Moore) will be included in an exhibit titled “Cultural Traditions: A Holiday Celebration.”

Where to See Illustrations by Gennady Spirin:

LR Gallery of Art, LLC — lrgalleryofart.com. Email Lana Rachkovskaya at lana@lrgalleryofart.com for private showings, prints, and other printed materials.

The Princeton Magazine Store landscape prints and one original for purchase www.princetonmagazinestore.com.

Gennady Spirin may be contacted directly at spirinart@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Lana Rachkovskaya for her help in assisting as a translator for Spirin.