How a Museum Inspired a Book That In Turn Gave Birth to a Painting

Becky Suss, To be Titled, 2019, inspired by the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Becky Suss

Thousands of kids scale the grand 5th Avenue stairs leading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art expecting to see a fountain full of pennies, an ornate 16th century canopy bed, and a bronze sculpture of an ancient Egyptian cat. They’re retracing the steps of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid—protagonists of beloved chapter book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, 1967, in which two runaways from Connecticut secretly live temporarily at the iconic New York museum, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

Contemporary painter Becky Suss went to the Met a lot as a child. Her grandparents lived nearby, and it became a default destination during family visits from Philadelphia. “The idea of camping out or hiding out at a museum, when I was a kid, was a very resonant idea,” Suss told Observer. “The book really stuck with me because it touched on this place that I was familiar with, but was still really exotic and of another world.”

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Suss recently created a life-sized painting based on a scene from the classic novel, as part of a series of large-scale interiors from children’s books that she read as a kid. The series debuts on February 21 in a solo exhibition, “Where They Are,” at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery and includes scenes from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and Little Man, Little Man by James Baldwin, among others.

The interior she chose to paint for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not from the museum, as one might expect, but of Mrs. Frankweiler’s floor-to-ceiling black marble bathroom—a sumptuous space that Suss found hard to resist. (The most memorable Met scenes, which have captivated readers-turned-museumgoers for decades, may be best left to young imaginations, anyway.) The painter does wink at the museum, though, by accessorizing the rim of the sunken bathtub with two Renaissance Italian urns from the Met collection.

“Making the decision to make this painting about [Frankenweiler’s] home and not the Met, I thought I really want to nod, I want to gesture towards that space, too,” says Suss. “I liked the idea of having this little anchor that suggests a relationship to the museum, and a relationship to somebody who collects art from that time period and from the general location of Michelangelo.” While squatting at the Met, Claudia and Jamie try to solve the art historical mystery of a sculpture that may or may not have been made by Michelangelo. The urns, from a scene at the end of the book, could help clue Claudia in to the answer.

Urns also feature in the book, when the brother-and-sister pair hide their belongings in a big one during the museum’s opening hours. But most of the Met scenes that kids remember best no longer exist. The canopy bed where the kids slept is now in storage, and the Fountain of the Muses that once decorated the museum restaurant (and which Claudia and Jamie bathed in, using powdered soap from the restroom) now graces Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

Some landmarks are still around, though. “The sarcophagus where Claudia hid her clothes is still there,” Elaine Lobl Konigsburg, the book’s Newbury Award-winning author, wrote later for a special publication produced by the Met. “And so is the urn where Jamie hid his trumpet.”

Konigsburg knew the Met well. For a whole year, while she took Saturday art classes in the city, she dropped her kids off at the museum. She joined them afterwards, to stroll through the galleries together. Their visits eventually inspired the book, after Konigsburg spotted a single piece of popcorn on an antique chair behind a velvet rope—and let her thoughts run wild.

“How had that lonely piece of popcorn arrived on the seat of that blue silk chair? Had someone sneaked in one night—it could not have happened during the day—slipped behind the barrier, sat in that chair, and snacked on popcorn?” Konigsburg mused. “For a long time after leaving the Museum that day, I thought about that piece of popcorn on the blue silk chair and how it got there.”

She used that kernel to craft a book that has made generations of curious youngsters hungry for visits to the Met—either real, or imagined.

From Konigsburg to Suss, and far beyond, the Met is an enduring source of inspiration. For kids lucky enough to climb the impressive granite stairs of the century-and-a-half-old institution, the museum has even, on occasion, offered tours and activities based on From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It won’t be lining its galleries with sleeping bags, though. “You can’t, of course, camp out here,” a special Mixed-Up Files issue of the Met’s Museum Kids magazine warned readers. “But you can have an adventure each time you visit.”

How a Museum Inspired a Book That In Turn Gave Birth to a Painting