19 October 2023
The Art of Alice & Martin ProvensenChronicle Chroma, 2022, £26. Reviewed by Michael Kirkham
Illustrator Michael Kirkham pays tribute to the Provensens
Authors, illustrators and designers Alice
and Martin Provensen were a wife-and-husband team who made children’s picturebooks together for more than four decades. Their resolutely cult status – despite two Caldecott awards – is now being nudged towards the
mainstream with a coincidental trilogy of reissues and collections.
The second in this trilogy is Chronicle Chroma’s The
Art of Alice & Martin Provensen.
Sketches from Leonardo DaVinci, 1984 (left) and A Year at Maple Hill Farm, 1978 (right). Top. Cover of The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen.
Alice (1918-2018) and Martin (1916-87) were both born in depression-era Chicago. Both moved house regularly and both sought solace in the libraries of the strange towns in which they found themselves. After these parallel childhoods they both graduated from the University of California to the animation studios on the West coast. It wasn’t until the Second World War, however, that they finally met, while doing war work in Washington D.C. They fell in love, married and, as Alice put it, became ‘one artist’.
After the war, they moved to New York City and began a career in
picturebooks. They arrived just as Little Golden Books, their first
publisher, was reinventing the industry with its accessible and
affordable full colour productions. Alice and Martin soon moved from
the city to start a family and run a picturesque farm in upstate New
York, but they never stopped making books. They worked together
the late 1980s, with Alice continuing alone well
into the 2000s after Martin’s death.
The Fireside Cook Book, 1949.
The Iliad and the Odyssey, 1956.
and Country, 1984.
of Alice and Martin Provensen
is a handsome and generous overview of their vast body of work. Newly
photographed original artworks and previously unpublished studies are
arranged chronologically, grouped by book. The accompanying text
tends towards human interest with an interview with the couple’s
daughter Karen Provensen, and the recollections of friends. Karen told Publishers
‘The truth is, it's so hard to be objective. I'm very sentimental
about their work. This is my mother and father, and that was my
childhood.’ An essay by picturebook scholar Leonard S. Marcus
contextualises their endeavours while the jewel in the crown is a pair
of exquisite acceptance
speeches by the Provensens themselves.
Back cover – from A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1951.
mid-century mannerisms of early period Provensen provide the design
cues for this volume although it was in their later work that they
developed a more personal visual language and idiosyncratic authorial
voice. It is this work that remains the most lively and relevant
Shaker Lane, 1987.
Lane (1987) is
a light, though affecting, social history built on close observation
and a highly developed humanity. The lively handling of the tempera
is perfectly tuned to express the energy of the improvised township
and its inhabitants.
The Glorious Flight, 1983.
Glorious Flight (1983)
tells the fail-and-fix story of Louis Blériot – the
person to cross the channel by air. His rickety Edwardian aircraft
rattle, clatter and echo across strange mud-coloured landscapes
before the whole book takes to the air and becomes clear and light.
The couple attempted to write the text for this book ‘with a
French accent’ – an
their habitually playful approach.
Tales from the Ballet, 1968.
Art of Alice & Martin Provensen quite literally and exclusively focuses upon the Provensens’ Art, those readers without the original books to hand will have no sense
of how these images have been carefully choreographed to work with
their text – a process the acceptance speeches emphasise as the
central activity of a picturebook maker. Similarly, the couple’s
extensive work in the design of the books themselves, likely of great
interest to Eye
is almost entirely absent.
A Horse and A Hound, A Goose and A Gander, 1979,
No matter. This is a spirited introduction to a pair of literary and artistic figures who were characterised by their constant growth and profound ambition for their discipline. Who wouldn’t benefit from such an introduction?
look out for The
Provensen Book Fairytales.
Originally 1971, reissued by New York Review Books, 2021 and
Truth about Max, published by Enchanted Lion Books, October 2023.
Michael Kirkham, illustrator and lecturer, University of Dundee / Edinburgh
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