Odds are that Alice and Martin Provensen played a role in your childhood. Did you read the classic Golden Books, such as The Color Kittens or The Fuzzy Duckling? Did you look at Tony the Tiger on a box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes? Did your parents buy you a children’s version of books such as Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare, or the Iliad and the Odyssey? Then the Provensens, a husband and wife illustration team, probably helped to shape your imagination.
Between 1947 and 2005 the Provensens created dozens of colorful, popular books for children. Many of those books are no longer with us; out of print, they’ve been loved to death by small children who spilled food on them or couldn’t resist joining in the fun with their own crayons. As children grew up, these battered books were often pitched.
But recently the country has been in a mood to reclaim art like this. Most of the best illustrators of the 20th century appeared in temporary or fragile mediums, such as magazine pages, newspapers, children’s books, or even cereal boxes. Their pictures were well loved, but it took a while for us to appreciate them as lasting art. People have now grown to recognize that these images are worth preserving and have gone back to rescue the original pictures from warehouses, attics, and junk piles, to reproduce and preserve them in a way befitting their status as works of art.
For example, Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, and Stevan Dohanos have now been compiled in substantial art books. Today they are the subject of serious museum exhibitions and scholarly art criticism. Original paintings that were once abandoned or given away after they had been reproduced for mass audiences are now selling for large sums at fancy art auctions.
The latest illustrators to be revived in a big, juicy, colorful art book are the Provensens. Their charming work has been collected and restored from dozens of children’s books, magazine advertisements, and even personal sketchbooks, then presented in a new art book, The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen from Chronicle Books (240 pages).
Following World War II, the baby boom led to an explosion in the demand for children’s books. The skyrocketing birth rate was accompanied by a new openness for fresh styles and approaches to children’s books, which were printed by book publishers with improved technologies for reproducing illustrations.
Enter Alice and Martin Provensen, a newly married couple of artists looking for work.
Alice and Martin grew up in the Depression and led creative, unconventional lives, which are described in the book. Both seemed destined for a career in the arts. As a boy, Martin made wood carvings of animals, trolls, and elves. When he carved a small boat, he cut a sail out of his bed sheets. In the 1930s he worked for Walt Disney on some of the early animated films that made movie history. The biography of Martin quotes him as saying that he loved the job because “Disney created an atmosphere of experimentation.” During World War II Martin enlisted in the Navy where he met Alice, who was working for the OSS, the spy agency precursor to the CIA.
After the war the couple moved to New York City searching for work as illustrators. Their first job resulted from a total fluke. Their daughter Karen recalls that her parents were walking the streets of New York with a portfolio of their samples when they bumped into a man, causing the art to spill out onto the sidewalk. The man turned out to be another illustrator who was working for the publisher Simon and Schuster. As he helped the Provensens pick up their samples, he was so impressed that he recommended them to his publisher. Simon and Schuster hired them to illustrate their first book, The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, for which they drew over 500 illustrations.
Their talent was quickly recognized, leading to a string of what became classic children’s books that affected generations. They won the Caldecott Medal for the “most distinguished American picture book for children,” the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and were inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.
In my conversations with today’s illustrators they are quick to acknowledge the importance of the Provensens. “They were extremely versatile in their styles” recalls Paul Zelinsky, a Caldecott Medal winner and one of today’s foremost illustrators of children’s books. “[W]hile I think they’re known and revered these days for the very flat, bold 60’s-ish style that is still totally dominating children’s books, they did other wonderful things. One of my favorite books growing up was The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown. It has what I think of as the best page turn ever, where the text says, “They dreamed a dream of a red rose tree that turned all white when you counted three. One, two, [turn the page—]Three” and three was a luminous white tree with white roses, the same image as the page before except for the transformation.”
By 1951 they were able to move away from New York City to a farm they named Maple Hill Farm, not far from the Hudson River. The farm became the center of their creativity for the rest of their lives.
Their daughter Karen recalled growing up on the farm with horses, sheep, chickens, and geese. “For my parents, living and working at the farm was ideal. The studio was set up perfectly with both of their drawing boards back to back near the window overlooking the green fields and the front pond and the driveway lined with maple trees. My mother planted yellow daffodils on the far side of the pond which bloomed every spring.”
The new book about the Provensens encompasses their long, loving career together in a way that preserves their cumulative work for future generations. For the first time it shows their sketchbooks filled with ideas from their world travels.
We also get to see their preliminary drafts, such as this search for the best way to depict a duel from Shakespeare.
The new book is a fitting and overdue tribute to two of the most important children’s book illustrators of the 20th century.
Featured image: Detail from the cover of The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen from Chronicle Books
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