Tuesday, May 10, 2022


I’ve previously written about Alice and Martin Provensen, the husband-and-wife illustration team responsible for more than 50 children's books. From 1947 to 1987 this remarkable couple worked together seamlessly to create lovely, highly admired illustrations that influenced the direction of children's books.

Now a welcome new art book from the Provensen's daughter, The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen, collects hundreds of those illustrations, mostly from the originals, and combines them with photographs, sketchbooks and information about the magical lives of these two artists.

Married in 1944, the Provensens left jobs at big animation studios (Disney and Walter Lantz) to seek work in New York as illustrators. They carried their portfolio of samples from publisher to publisher until one day they bumped into someone on the street, causing their pictures to spill to the ground. By chance, the "someone" turned out to be famed illustrator Gustaf Tenggren.  As he helped them pick up the art, he was impressed with their work and helped them get their first job.

This was the start of a long and successful career. After illustrating classic books such as The Color Kittens, the Provensens were able to purchase a picturesque farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. They named their new home Maple Hill Farm and converted its barn into an art studio. There, surrounded by rolling meadows, old trees and livestock, they spent their lives working side by side illustrating children's books.

They became "trusted collaborators," passing each picture back and forth, merging their taste and judgment to improve the art.  How were two such creative and innovative artists able to work jointly on every picture? Alice said:

The question we are most often asked is, “how do you work together?“ Everyone asks this of us because the stereotyped image of an artist is that of a lonely, starving figure working in a Garrett. People have forgotten that the first book Illustrators, the illuminators of the middle ages, worked in concert, one to paint the flowers, one to paint the figures, another to do the background and the texts. All through the Renaissance, artist studios were little factories. 

One of the things I liked best about the new book is the wealth of previously unpublished work which demonstrates how the Provensens worked together. They traveled the world, taking their sketchbooks with them and recording ideas every step of the way:

As the Provensens worked on a picture, they would compare their judgments, playing off each other and gaining inspiration from each other.  Alice is quoted in the book as saying “a trusted collaborator is of immense value.… That a collaborator bolsters one’s own sense of security – helps one avoid mistakes."

The Provensens' method for creating art struck me as similar to the way couples compromise in creating a good marriage.  Each brought their own strong opinions,  their own artistic skills, their own vision, yet they recognized they might achieve a wider vision and a larger fulfillment by harmonizing with the right partner.

Two trees conjoined as one: the final resting spot for
Alice and Martin Provensen on Maple Hill Farm


MORAN said...

My favorite illustrators from my youth.

Anonymous said...

I forgot about your Artists in Love series. You used to do a lot of them. I'd like to see more.


Paul Sullivan said...

What a wonderful post! I came across their work in the 1960s and it it stopped me cold!—Paul

Caterina Gerbasi said...

you know, after muddycolors realeased an article on NFTs I got so mad I had to come to here and just see someone writing beautifully about great artist. thank you for this quaint but important blog.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes, and the youth of many others.

JSL-- That was a very fun (and often wicked) series. I have a few more in me, and I think I'll bring it back.

Paul Sullivan-- That's when I found them too, and I had a similar reaction. So different from other children's books. The Iliad and the Odyssey and Myths and Legends-- still my favorites-- really expanded my notion of what illustration could be.

Caterina Gerbasi-- Hah! I've thought that NFTs have nothing to do with art, so they aren't an appropriate topic for this blog, but your comment makes me think it is time to take a poke at them.