Dutch writer and illustrator Marie (Rie) Cramer was born in what was then the Dutch East Indies (Java) in 1887. Her father was often at sea, and two of her older sisters were sent to school in the Netherlands in the 1890s. By 1896, however, Rie, her sister Erna, and their mother had all settled in Arnhem.
During their time living in Arnhem, the family regularly visited Rie’s grandmother and her Aunt Gesine in The Hague. It was her aunt who encouraged Rie to pursue her interest in the visual arts. When Rie’s father came home from the sea permanently, in 1904, the family moved to The Hague. While living in this large, metropolitan city, Rie often visited the Academy of Arts, where she meet her lifelong friend, Françoise (Frankie) Carbasius.
Rie published her first book of illustrated poetry for children in 1906 (Van Meisjes en Jongetjes). At the time, children’s publishing in The Netherlands was dominated by didactic and humourless books with flat, dull and often charmless illustrations. Cramer’s work was significantly different, [perhaps similar in character to the unique place Beatrix Potter’s publications had in the UK] a move away from the somewhat brutalist aesthetic that had dominated children’s publishing to something far more colourful and playful: works that featured bright-eyed boys and girls often in recognisable everyday situations. Books that were designed and produced for children’s reading pleasure, rather than purely for their moral and intellectual edification. Rie’s first book was so successful that the publishers encouraged her to publish a sequel in 1907: the beginning of a long, illustrious career.
In the 1910s, Cramer’s work was dominated by delicately coloured watercolours, accentuated by line work in black ink. Later, she diversified, experimenting with a range of forms such as lithography, etchings and woodcuts. Over the course of her long career, Rie also produced set designs and costumes for the theatre, ceramics, plays for stage and radio (under the pseudonym Marc Holman), novels for older children, journalism, poetry and advertising/billboard artworks. She is perhaps best known for her distinctive 1920s work, with solid ‘spot’ colour, heavy, flowing ink lines (as in the illustrations for A Polar Bear’s Tale).
Her personal life was tumultuous, and highly reflective of the times in which she lived. Between 1914 and 1919, as a young divorced woman, she had a an affair with a married man: the art critic Albert Plasschaert. After the war ended in 1918, she travelled to stay with her sister, Erry, who had settled in Paris. The two sisters enjoyed mixing in the vibrant arts community in Paris at the time, including musicians, painters and dancers. Soon, however, it became clear that Erry was unwell: she was having trouble with her lungs, and the sisters decided to travel to a sanatorium in St Moritz, Switzerland. From there, they travelled to Rome, where Rie finally ended her long-lived affair.
Rie married again in 1922, but this marriage, too, was an unhappy one, plagued by infidelity and money problems and, perhaps, the ghost of the stillborn child Rie had given birth to in 1924. Divorce, though perhaps inevitable, came almost ten years later.
During the 1930s, and particularly during the build-up to the Second World War, Rie’s work came under suspicion. Two of her works (She, We and You, and The Land of Promise) were seized/burned and banned during the German occupation because of their anti-nazi sentiments. Rie worked with the resistance during the war, writing poems to raise money and hiding refugees.
After the war, her work finally gained a solid international audience, including readers throughout Europe and the United States.
Later in life, Rie shared a home with her friends Dirk Verbeek and Betsy Cramer, in Laren. When Verbeek passed away in 1954, Rie and Betsy moved to Majorca. The two women lived happily together until Betsy’s death in the mid-1960s; Rie stayed on the island until she was forced to return the The Netherlands for health reasons in 1971. She passed away, at the age of 89, in a nursing home in Laren.