After Swiss real estate investor and art collector Bruno Stefanini died last December, the non-profit he founded went through the work of organizing his archives. Recently, it found something unexpected among them: a portfolio of preparatory sketches for the classic children’s tale The Little Prince.
For the uninitiated, The Little Prince is a novella by the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Published in 1943, the tale has been translated into 270 languages, sold 145 million copies and been translated by millions of French students. It has also been turned into an anime series, a graphic novel, an animated Netflix movie and even a theme park.
AFP reports that Stefanini acquired the folder including the sketches at an auction in 1986 and set them aside, just a small part of the tens of thousands of artworks he collected during his lifetime. Elisabeth Grossmann, a curator at his non-profit, the Foundation for Art, Culture, and History in Winterthur, says that the sketches—including the Little Prince talking to a fox, a boa constrictor eating an elephant and “The Tippler” sitting on his home planet—are in good condition. He made the sketches while in exile in New York in 1942, following the German invasion of France. A famed airmail pilot, he made the sketches on airmail paper, and one of them includes a love letter to his wife.
According to Sarah Cascone at artnet News, the foundation plans to share the findings with the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, which holds the original 140-page manuscript and 35 sketches for the book. “Saint-Exupéry’s drawings are so simple—generally just a few strokes of pen and ink and a bit of watercolor on the most ephemeral of paper…. But they are full of such energy, delight, and poignancy,” says Morgan curator Christine Nelson. “It’s always good news when additional drawings surface—they allow us to glimpse the birth of a character that has had a profound impact on readers for the past 75 years.”
While the book is classified as a children’s tale, its philosophical ruminations on human nature and growing up have endeared it to adult readers as well. The tale is about a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara (a real-life event in Saint-Exupéry’s life, as detailed in his book Wind, Sand and Stars). Among the sand dunes, the pilot meets a cheerful, blonde young boy who is called the Little Prince. While the narrator fixes his plane, the Prince tells him his story, which begins on his home planet, asteroid B-612, which is about the size of a house. There, he tended to several tiny volcanoes and fell in love with a rose before deciding to explore the universe.
Eventually, he ends up on Earth where, in the desert, he encounters, among others, a snake, a fox and the narrator. Combined with Saint-Exupéry’s distinctive illustrations, the book is beautiful, poignant and strange.
It was also the author’s final major work. After his time in the U.S., he returned to Europe to fly reconnaissance for the Free French Air Forces. In 1944, he disappeared over the Mediterranean during a mission. It wasn’t until 1998 that fishermen pulled up a silver bracelet with his name on it. Marine archaeologists eventually found the remains of the P-38 the airman was flying. In 2006, researchers identified the German pilot who shot down Saint- Exupéry in 1944. As it turned out, the young pilot had actually idolized the French author and aviation pioneer, reading all of his adventure tales as a youth. If he had known that Saint- Exupéry was piloting the plane, he later said, he would have never pulled the trigger.