Monday, July 14, 2008

The Provensens: "Something strange and provocative"

No discussion about the innovations and influences of the 1950's storybook styles would be complete without mentioning Alice and Martin Provensen.

In fact, all the quotes from Henry C. Pitz's 1959 article in American Artist that I referenced over the past week were actually from his article showcasing the talented couple.

"A new flavor has been imparted to our illustration," wrote Pitz in 1959, "something strange and provocative, something that stirs old racial memories and at the same time hints at new exciting forms."

Pitz marveled at the development of the Provensens' style. "Their combined talents are fresh and new, and although their first book is only twelve years old, their contributions have been of delightful importance."

How true. The Provensens initially produced pleasing storybook art that reflected their background in animation.

These early examples from 1948 hardly hint at what was to come in just a few short years.

By the early 50's the Provensens' work was beginning to display what Henry C. Pitz called "a fertile stock of invention, and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction [that] has spurred them to observe, study and experiment."

I've posited this past week that the storybook artists influenced popular culture with their stylizations. I could hardly give you a more concrete example of that influence than the Provensens' 1953 design of 'Tony the Tiger' and other cereal box mascots for Kelloggs. The incorporation of the storybook style into mass-marketed packaging and subsequent spin-offs (animated tv ads, print ad campaigns) fused the storybook style to a wide range of visual media and encouraged a broad range of commecial artists to adopt it.

The Provensens, meanwhile, were moving on. "Although they have done advertising and magazine illustration," writes Pitz, "they prefer the less frantic pace and less ephemeral climate of the book field."

Again, Henry Pitz' remarks perfectly describe the next stage in the Provensens' growth.

"If one must pin an obvious label on their work it would be 'modern', and yet the critic, aware of the long perspective of the world's art would say in the same breath, 'how traditional' ".

"Their vocabulary of decorative forms and motifs is an extended one, enlarged by scrutiny of many of the world's cultures and made supple by constant practice."

The Provensens were enthusiastically experimental with media as well as style. "They do not have a routine, stage-by-stage method," wrote Pitz. "They begin painting as soon as a design-image has quickened their minds; the first attack may be the successful one, or the fourth or the fifth."

Reinforcing my belief that the next generation of illustrators would be affected by their exposure to the storybook style is this passage:

"Certainly the Provensens' work has grown in power and subtlety. Earlier influences now seem to be entirely absorbed, and their note is independent and confident. In fact, they are having their influence on others now, for they are among the most imitated illustrators in art school circles."

As his article (and this series of posts) draws to a close, Henry C. Pitz confirms what I already knew growing up in a world full of books, cartoons, and packaging imagery that can trace its roots back to the 1950's storybook styles:

"The commercial success of [the Provenses'] books is a heartening sign, for it proves the existence of a sizable audience receptive to excellent picture-making."

"Their success is more than a personal one. It indicates that the more than three decades in upsurge in the American illustrated book has lost none of its vitality, and is reaching a new level of excellence and touching new audiences."

* My Alice and Martin Provensen Flickr set.


  1. Leif, I'm absolutely eating these posts up! Thank you for the tireless effort and insight into this brilliant era of artistry. And dang it, looks like I have more books to buy. :)

  2. I'm really glad to hear that, pumml :-)

    Looking at your own delightful work on your blog, I can certainly see how the storybook styles of the 50's have provided a wealth of inspiration to you. Thank you for your comments!

  3. Leif, another great round of revivals, and suddenly I am young again! Beautiful design work in need of more exploration as it applies so well today.

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  5. Thank you for sharing the works of the Provensens. Today is birthday of Martin Provensen. The work displayed here is awesome! The illustrations that scale beyond the borders of a single page, play a grand role in the way we become. Did the two Provensens invent this style of illustration?