The Inner Life of a Cat

From “The Truth About Max.”Credit…Alice and Martin Provensen THE TRUTH ABOUT MAX, by Alice and Martin Provensen Alice and Martin Provensen were the American picture book’s Ginger and Fred: a supremely poised and stylish illustrator team who, in a collaboration that spanned nearly 40 years and more than 40 children’s books (19 of which they also wrote and edited), beguiled fans with their deadpan wit, far-flung curiosity and midcentury-modernist flair. Both were born in Chicago and studied at the University of California. And by the time they met in Los Angeles in 1943, they had both done journeyman work in the burgeoning animation industry and were ready for a change that promised greater creative freedom. After the war and a move to New York (by which time they had married), the couple turned to book illustration, established themselves as mainstays of the phenomenally successful Golden Books list, and branched out from there, tackling subjects ranging from Greek mythology to classical ballet. In 1951, they purchased the ramshackle Dutchess County property that became Maple Hill Farm, a storybook hideaway and the setting of several collaborations for which their barnyard served as central casting. When not roaming the world for research or pleasure, the Provensens logged long hours at back-to-back drawing tables in their converted barn, patiently developing the ideal approach for their project of the moment. Martin made lunch, Alice cooked supper; apart from that, the couple rarely revealed much about their division of labor. They “really were one artist,” Alice once explained. “The Truth About Max,” with a big, brassy cat as its protagonist, is a previously unpublished picture book that was discovered in the form of a dummy, or preliminary version, in 2019 among some papers held onto by Alice’s agent George Nicholson, who died in 2015. Martin Provensen had died in 1987; Alice died in 2018. Over the years, the couple had come to appreciate as individuals many of the animals living in their midst and, in a series of droll, sketchbook-style volumes, had proved themselves to be canny naturalist-observers. In “Our Animal Friends” (1974), the first […]

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