A wealthy man engages a great painter to create an image of the faithful horse that runs to him in 20 heartbeats. He waits for word that his painting is ready. Years slip by, and both man and horse grow old. Finally, livid, the man returns to demand the picture he commissioned so very long ago. And in 20 heartbeats, the artist puts brush to paper to produce a piece of genius. But “[t]he man did not look at the painting. All he could see were the years that had gone by.” There are many ways to read this story: as a treatise on the nature of art and the value of product versus process; as an allegory about faith and another Great Painter; as a reminder to look beyond the obvious. These messages may elude younger readers, but no one will miss the point of Young’s arresting limited-color collage work, in which dreams are veiled in a layered rice-paper mist, and texture, curve and line, along with the compelling and considered placement of pigment, guide the eye along the narrative path.
In historical China, a wealthy man desires a painting of his favorite horse. He takes his steed to Homan, a renowned painter, and pays a bag of gold in advance for the portrait. Homan spends a few moments touching the horse, circling him; then he retires to paint. After waiting many years and watching his horse grow old, the client is infuriated by the artist’s progress and demands his picture. Homan paints the horse in a few swift, sure strokes (“It took him twenty heartbeats”). Enraged by how quickly the portrait is executed, the buyer turns to leave when he sees the thousands of paintings Homan has made in preparation for his masterpiece. Young creates collages of cut papers as well as drawn and painted elements to illustrate the story. From shadowy figures in the rich man’s dream to the artist's gesture, reaching out to the horse to the bold forms underscoring the characters’ emotions at the story’s climax, the handsome artwork evokes every nuance of this memorable story which celebrates dedication to one’s art. — Carolyn Phelan
Starred Review - Publishers Weekly
Set in the indeterminate Far East of long ago so often favored by Caldecott Medalist Young, this story about a rich man and an artist lends itself to various levels of interpretation. Children may see the book as a lesson about how practice makes perfect; adults may see it as a confrontation between commerce and art. The rich man pays an artist to paint a picture of his beloved horse; after years of waiting, he is furious when the artist paints the picture in little more than “twenty heartbeats.” When he sees the thousands of drawings of his horse in the artist's studio, however, he understands why the artist has struggled so long. Like a folktale, Haseley's (A Story for Bear) text unfolds economically, but it is Young's virtuoso illustrations that breathe life into the book—the combination of elegant brushstrokes and collage designs are masterly. At its best, the story... attempts to explain just how an artist transforms his vision into art; through Young's artwork, readers, like the rich man, will understand how remarkable that vision can be. Ages 5–9. (May)