Painting a Picture

One of the products in the gift shop at this year’s sold-out Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a licensed plush figure depicting Dick Bruna’s rabbit character Miffy as Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. This is the latest in a small but growing group of collaborations, mostly taking place in Europe or Asia, whose design inspiration comes from integrating classic licensed characters into famous works of fine art: 

  • Miffy licensee Just Dutch sells a wide range of hand-crocheted plush figures of Miffy and friends, including several inspired by paintings by Mondrian, Van Gogh, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Monet, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. All are Dutch, as Miffy is, except Monet, who traveled to the Netherlands and did some of his most famous paintings there. The collaboration with the Rijksmuseum mentioned above also includes, in addition to Miffy’s Milkmaid, a plush figure of her friend Boris as the main officer in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Like the Miffy x Vermeer piece, Night Watch Boris is sold in the Rijksmuseum’s shop. Miffy and friends also star in two books that guide very young readers in learning about the art of Rembrandt and Vermeer, respectively, with the latter title published this year.  
  • Last spring, Sanrio’s Hello Kitty Museum Collection came back, after an initial launch a decade ago, in 2013. The merchandise featured images of Hello Kitty reimagined in seven famous paintings, Munch’s The Scream, Manet’s The Fifer, Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, Monet’s Woman with a Parasol, Renoir’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Irene Cahen d’Anvers, and Degas’ The Green Dancer. Products included picture frame magnets, sliding and cube puzzles, postcards, mini-towels, keychains, and a variety of stickers, among other items. The publisher Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha was a partner in the collection. 
  • In November 2021, Barbapapa licensor TF1 launched a Barbalouvre collection with The Louvre, in collaboration with cultural organization Réunion des Musées Nationaux and publisher Les Livres du Dragon d’Or. The assortment featured the characters Barbapapa and Barbamama in François Gérard’s Psyche and Love, Barbabelle in The Mona Lisa, Barbouille in an Albrecht Dürer self-portrait, Barbalala in Eugène Delacroix’ Liberty Leading the People, Barbotine as the Egyptian sculpture Squatting Scribe, Barbidou as the Egyptian goddess Bastet, and Barbidur in Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV. Products included children’s books, temporary tattoos, coloring books, notebooks, folders, posters, totes, t-shirts and sweatshirts, pins, mugs, memory games, puzzles, snowglobes, pens, pocket mirrors, and boxes of mints. 
  • A 2017 exhibition in Takashimaya department stores, in collaboration with Hosomi Museum, inserted Japanese characters into classic Japanese artworks from the 17th to early 20th centuries. Characters including some of Osamu Tezuka’s creations, virtual idol Hatsune Miku, and the San-X character Rilakkuma were paired with paintings by artists from the 20th century Rinpa school and Edo period painter Itō Jakuchū, for example. Merchandise featuring some of the 35 paintings—a few of which had been exhibited previously—was for sale. 
  • A Rilakkuma plush came out in 2013 that took its cues from Monet’s La Japonaise, tied to the exhibition Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, which had stops at Setagaya and Nagoya art museums. 

For the character licensors, these partnerships offer a fun new design theme to play with and places the characters in a new environment: the museum shop. For the museums, collaborations like these are a new way to bring young fans into the world of art, hopefully to become lifelong museum goers, and creates a unique collection to highlight in their stores.  

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