Theodore Seuss Geisel, known to the world as Dr. Seuss, is a cherished children’s book author and illustrator. What the world doesn’t know is that Dr. Seuss kept 158 hats hidden in his estate and had a collection of his secret paintings hidden with them.
Paintings of smoking cats, dying birds and other adult-themed artwork show that Dr. Seuss was more than just a children’s book illustrator. But very few people know the art is in Austin, much less that it exists at all.
Art on 5th Gallery, an Austin fine art gallery, has carried the secret Dr. Seuss art in its permanent collection for 15 years. In addition, 26 hats from Dr. Seuss’ hat collection are on display.
Remembered and known for his quirky children’s book characters, no one knew Dr. Seuss had been painting until four years after he died. In addition, only his closest friends knew about his extensive hat collection.
Robert Chase Jr., the publisher of “The Art of Dr. Seuss,” was able to meet Dr. Seuss’ wife, Audrey Geisel, and visit the estate to see the hat collection.
“Audrey motioned me to follow her into the library,” Chase said. “She pulled back the massive bookcase lining one entire wall, revealing a false door. In this secret place only a handful of people had ever seen were a few hundred hats and dozens of artworks. It was at that moment that the full breadth of Dr. Seuss’ creativity began to fully reveal itself.”
Bill Dreyer, the curator of “The Art of Dr. Seuss,” said that Dr. Seuss collected hats during his travels. By the time he was 30, Dr. Seuss had visited that many countries.
“Hats are transformative in many ways,” Dreyer said. “His books and his art are all about imagination and creativity, so hats played perfectly into what he was accomplishing as an important author.”
Dreyer said this exhibit highlights the direct inspiration of the hats on Dr. Seuss’ books and artwork. Next to several of Dr. Seuss’ paintings, there are pictures of the hat that inspired the artwork.
While some of the pieces exhibited in the collection represent the children’s book characters and styles the world has come to love, some of the paintings show a different side of Dr. Seuss.
“In many ways, these artworks are surprising,” Dreyer said. “Some we would expect from him, but many pieces are more about the grown-up Dr. Seuss. Everything is family-appropriate, but there are some wink-wink, nudge-nudge, more grown up expressions of his humor throughout the exhibition.”
Joe Sigel, founder of Art on 5th, theorized that Dr. Seuss’ paintings were never seen by the public because the publishers of his children’s books told him to keep them hidden because of the adult themes represented.
Sigel said while there is the “Cat in the Hat” character that everyone knows, there is also a cat who is like an evil twin represented in the painting, “Cat from the Wrong Side of the Tracks.” Wearing a mischievous grin, this cat stands in front of a distorted pool table smoking a cigarette and wearing a tie with a naked female cat on it.
The most surprising artwork is Dr. Seuss’ rendition of the historical painting, “Abduction of the Sabine Woman.” With his cartoonish flair, Dr. Seuss recreated the scene, but with his Whoville characters. Even Horton the Elephant is represented in the artwork.
“I find it interesting because it’s such a diverse nature,” Sigel said. “You have pieces that are dark and also some that are whimsical. Many artists are stuck to a certain palette or particular way, but Dr. Seuss just did whatever he liked to do. He wasn’t trying to sell; he was just doing it for himself.”
Despite painting for his personal enjoyment, Dr. Seuss’ last request to his wife was that she share his secret paintings with the world.
Dreyer said that while the original artwork will stay in the home, Audrey allowed these paintings to be replicated and shared. “It’s great to be able to see the artwork,” Dreyer said. “They’re wonderfully wild and wacky, almost otherworldly depictions of the Seussian mind. It’s great to learn something brand new about an author you thought you knew everything about.”