Prolific illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen influenced generations of young readers and midcentury designers through their visual storytelling. In the coming months, a trio of books will greet admirers old and new: The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen (Chroma, Jan. 2022), a retrospective filled with rarities; The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales (New York Review Books, Nov. 16), a reissued classic; and The Truth About Max (Enchanted Lion, fall 2022), a previously unpublished picture book. Each volume provides a distinct perspective on the creative duo.
Coincidentally, both Martin (1916–1987) and Alice (1918–2018) grew up in Chicago and worked as animators in Los Angeles—Alice at Walter Lantz, Martin at Disney. As chronicled in The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen, they first met in 1943, married in 1944, and began creating Golden Books in 1947. They lived 90 miles north of Manhattan near Staatsburg, N.Y., creating picture books including the Caldecott Honor–winning A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard and the Caldecott Medal–winning The Glorious Flight.
“I feel the weight of honoring their legacy,” said Karen Provensen Mitchell, the couple’s daughter and the keeper of their extensive files. “Those 40 years together, on Maple Hill Farm with that beautiful studio, were extraordinary. And I give my mother so much credit. It was difficult to go on after my father passed away, but she found she still loved doing the intensive research as well as the intensive illustrating. The books my mother did alone gave her purpose for the rest of her life.”
In 2014, Gloria Fowler and Steve Crist—then at AMMO and now publishers of Chroma—sent a letter to Alice, who was 96 and living with Mitchell in San Clemente, Calif. Fowler and Crist envisioned a career-spanning Provensen book, but their initial query went unanswered due to Alice’s declining health and the sudden death of Mitchell’s husband. When they reached out to Mitchell in 2018, she invited them to visit.
“It was an honor to go through [her collection],” Fowler said. “The Provensens worked together on the same pieces without ego getting in the way, and their style evolved and became customized. The Iliad and the Odyssey [a Giant Golden Book] is a masterpiece, truly. The aesthetic feel is equal parts ancient Greece and midcentury modern art.”
“They were influenced by abstract expressionism in those minimalist figures set against that painterly background,” Fowler pointed out. “Karen casually mentioned Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and how they’d spend summers with them in Provincetown. There was a lot of cross-pollination going on there.”
Fowler found that “besides the artwork, there were so many surprises: their sketchbooks, which are absolute gems, and personal things like Martin’s Valentine scroll to Alice and his Paris movie scroll—he even created a two-crank wooden box for viewing it.”
“My father never let a birthday [or an adoption birthday] go by without quickly painting or drawing these little cards,” Mitchell recalled. “And the sketchbooks—I have about 20 of them. Everybody who’s seen them is just in awe. You see his artistic process—he’s written down tons of little notes of the whole environment wherever he happened to be.” Street scenes of Venice, Paris, and locations in India illustrate The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen.
The volume also features essays by Robert Gottlieb and Leonard Marcus, close friends of the Provensens. Gottlieb met them through marketing guru Nina Bourne, during their early years at Simon & Schuster. “Nina went up there quite frequently, and she said, ‘You have got to meet Alice and Martin,’ ” Gottlieb said. “They always liked meeting new people, so we turned up, and we never left.”
“Since none of us had families other than our children, they were more like family than friends,” Gottlieb continued. He and actor Maria Tucci got married at Maple Hill Farm, and they were present when Alice and Martin adopted nine-month-old Karen in 1959. Later, they built a house on the adjoining property. “We like the Maple Hill Farm art because we’re vaguely in it,” he said. “We knew all their dogs and they knew all our dogs.”
Gottlieb continued: “Alice wasn’t scary, and I don’t want to call her imperious, but there was a stern quality to her. She made order out of chaos without seeming to do anything. She was very deliberate. Martin was quote ‘artistic’ unquote. He was charming, adorable, so talented. The main thing is that they absolutely adored each other.”
As for insight into their creative process, “That was forbidden territory,” Gottlieb said. “They had the big studio out in the barn, and they were side by side. They would come back to the house for lunch, and the work was never discussed. They were totally secretive.”
“The Provensens were consummate craftspeople,” agreed Marcus, a long-time children’s book historian who is now editor-at-large at Astra Publishing House. “They liked to compare themselves to medieval illuminators and they didn’t like to acknowledge who did what in their images. There is a lightly held virtuosity to their work, a wow factor that doesn’t come with a big dose of egotism.”
Marcus described himself as “steeped in” the family’s lore through his historical research and participation in events at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. “He’s been a Provensen fan for a long time—I appreciate his continued friendship and his expertise,” Mitchell said.
“Alice once showed me a sketchbook they had done in France,” Marcus recalled, “and because I was in need of images for A Caldecott Celebration, she just tore a page out of the sketchbook and said, ‘Give it back when you’re done.’ She decided she trusted me. Nothing was too precious.”
Old Stories Revisited and Secrets Revealed
Marcus characterized the Provensens as “fundamentally modest people. I don’t think they sought the limelight. They were not businesspeople, and they could have made more money” if they had pursued copyright on their work prior to the early 1970s. Mitchell seconded this: “People always thought they were super-rich, but they had priorities: the farm and travel.” This focus on art over commerce paid the bills, but led to permissions headaches later.
“I had been trying since I came on board at New York Review Books back in 2013 to reissue the Provensen titles that were out of print,” explained NYRB editor Susan Barba. “They were brilliant midcentury author-illustrators in the same pantheon as Tomi Ungerer. There’s a treasure trove of books that could be given a second life.”
Barba discovered that the Provensens were not copyright claimants on any of their work prior to 1971’s The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales. Alice’s agent, George Nicholson at Sterling Lord Literistic, had hoped to revert rights on the earlier work, and he pursued this with assistance from agent Erica Rand Silverman. By the time of Nicholson’s death in 2015, Silverman had left Sterling Lord to join Stimola Literary Studio; in 2019 she took over representing Mitchell and the Alice Provensen Trust. With Silverman’s input, Barba made plans to reissue Fairy Tales.
Because Karen did not have all the originals, Barba explained, “we ended up scanning from a first edition, and my colleagues adjusted to best match the art. We had a couple of rounds with the printer to correct the color and make sure the paper they were printing on was not going to give the art a different cast.”
All of the stories from the original Fairy Tales are included, but “we did eliminate two illustrations [of Chinese courtiers] from ‘The Nightingale,’ ” Barba said. “It was a difficult decision, but we didn’t want to misrepresent the Provensens by including something that might have been considered a caricature and not historically accurate.” One image has been added: a half-title page from Mitchell’s files, picturing a bird on a branch with a ring in its beak. Barba said the beeswax-tinted background reminds her of “papyrus, as if it’s been hidden away and uncovered. I like the idea of having that be a part of this book in its rebirth.”
Silverman uncovered another surprise in Nicholson’s Provensen materials: a book dummy for The Truth About Max. “I remember having seen it earlier, but there were no talks of doing anything with it,” Silverman said. “George may have had ideas. It’s a return to the world of Maple Hill Farm, and center stage is Max, Karen’s cat.”
“When Erica found the dummy she reached out to me, and I of course was keen to see it,” said Claudia Bedrick, publisher of Enchanted Lion. “We have a strong interest in books from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s that merit a return.” Bedrick described the dummy as 6.25 x 9 inches, with handwritten pages about Max “as the sun sets and he begins to prowl around in the twilight.” Readers can find Max’s Cheshire grin and tawny stripes in Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm (1974) and in the Chroma volume as well.
As the three new projects took shape, Mitchell’s engagement with her parents’ archive helped her “get the truth about their earlier years. I knew a little of this and a little of that, but it made me look at a lot of sources. In having to choose the artwork [for Chroma] and get the additional artwork [from collectors] to be photographed, I took a close look at every single book.” Her introduction to The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen combines her memories with lengthy quotations from her parents’ speeches and interviews. “The truth is, it’s so hard to be objective,” she admitted. “I’m very sentimental about their work. This is my mother and father, and that was my childhood—them working side by side in their studio.”
“For Karen, it’s been a very emotional process and she moved through it with so much grace,” Silverman reflected. “It’s satisfying to dig in and go through this process of keeping their work relevant, honoring their contributions, creating conversation. The handmade quality of their art, in a digital age, is so refreshing.”
Marcus likewise attributed this Provensen mini-revival to the endurance of good design. “I don’t believe that the history of art is linear in the sense it comes and goes,” he said. “Their art feels as much of the moment now as when they made it.” He pointed to the innovative art of picture book illustrator Kenard Pak: “His style came right out of the Provensens. Jon Klassen probably loves their work. They were part of a larger, future-focused design movement.”
“I can only speculate as to why their work is resonating for people, but it could be that so many images these days are digital, and there’s a coolness,” Marcus said. “We could be seeing a turn back to art that is handmade, textured, layered, and more intimate, with a crafted, human-touch feeling.”
Three new glimpses into the Provensen archive suggest what that art might look like.