The Written Image: Maira Kalman

Born in Tel Aviv and brought up in New York City, writer and artist Maira Kalman has made her mark in literature as well as the visual arts with her stylized, narrative illustrations, which have graced the pages of the New Yorker, the 2005 edition of The Elements of Style, and her own books for adults and children. The image above, of a young Vladimir Nabokov, appears in Kalman’s visual-essay collection The Principles of Uncertainty (Penguin Press, 2007)—which was serialized on Kalman’s New York Times blog—as well as in a retrospective exhibition of Kalman’s work currently on view at the

Jewish Museum in New York City. The show, titled Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World), also features works from her image-text memoir And the Pursuit of Happiness (Penguin Press, 2010), her children’s book series about a poet-dog named Max Stravinsky, and the New Yorker—including the iconic “New Yorkistan” cover from December 2001. According to former Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl, who worked with Kalman on visual narratives such as Herring and Philosophy Club, whose painting of a table covered in simple but delightful fare appears in Various Illuminations, Kalman’s work instructs us to never underestimate “the charm of the daily.” Kalman’s “daily” narrative could arise from the fashion and faces on New York City streets, minutiae marking moments of historical heft, such as the sea of flags at a presidential inauguration, or elements of childhood that shine in retrospect. The text that appears along with the gouache above reads, “Nabokov’s family fled Russia. How could the young Nabokov, sitting innocently and elegantly in a red chair, leafing through a book on butterflies, imagine such displacement? Such loss.” For information on visiting Various Illuminations, which is on display at the Jewish Museum until July 31, visit