In a beautiful, insightful book, Under the North Light, The Life and Work of Maud and Miska Petersham (Woodstock Arts) born of personal experience and skillful research, Lawrence Webster has written the first comprehensive examination of a remarkable pair of artists and the stories and illustrations they created for children during a 40-year career. Since their marriage in 1917, when Maud and Miska Petersham weren’t traveling the world collecting authentic costumes and toys to be translated into pictures, much of their lives were spent facing each other at drawing boards placed next to the north-facing window in their Woodstock home.
Fortuitously, and symbolic of their complementary abilities, Maud was left handed, Miska, right. Maud liked to start the drawings, while Miska enjoyed finishing them. And so they worked, creating a vast oeuvre of colorful images in folk art styles specific to each setting. Their renowned children’s books comprise an even share among illustrations they created for other authors, new editions of classic fairy tales and Bible stories, and textbooks. Their work reached beyond their home at the foot of Byrdcliffe to an international audience, and now spans generations.
The Petershams were an unlikely couple. Maud, daughter of the minister of the Wurts Street Baptist Church in Kingston, graduated from Vassar and went to New York City to study at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, founded by William Merritt Chase. Miska was born Petrezselym Mihaly in Hungary. The grandson of a shepherd, he arrived at Ellis Island in September of 1912. Webster writes, “He brought with him a degree from the Royal National School for Applied Arts in Budapest, no money, boundless energy, and an expectation of cowboys and Indians in the streets.”
They met while employed at their first jobs, at the International Art Studio on West 42nd Street opposite the New York Public Library. Miska took Maud under his wing and shared his professional secrets with her. They married in 1917, just four years after the famous Armory Show, when modern European art was introduced to America.
These were heady days for young artists, and Woodstock was already a rollicking art colony. It’s not surprising, especially given Maud’s local background, that the pair settled here in 1920. Their only child, son Miki, born in 1923, fit comfortably into their daily routine with the help of Maud’s “Auntie,” Celia Jane Sisson, who lived with them.
The Rooster Crows, a book of American rhymes and jingles won the 1946 Caldecott Medal. In 1942, An American ABC won Caldecott Honors. In the days before the Caldecott awards were established, the Petershams were recognized by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. These awards don’t reveal the sheer volume and consistent high quality of their work, as much of it was done for other writers. Attention to this fascinating couple is long overdue, and no one is better qualified than the author to have written this important contribution to art history. Thanks to the research and warm, well-organized writing of Woodstock native Lawrence Webster, knowledge of the Petershams is accessible to all.
“Children’s books are the most difficult to produce and they’re the most influential on human development,” Ms. Webster said this week. “They’re a reflection of what we wish we were as a society. I think most of us have memories of pictures from books we read as children. I was intrigued with the Petershams because of their unique and long-lasting collaboration and for their unspoken values,” she said. Among the values instilled by the Petershams is the sense of fundamental safety that allows an adventurous youth to go forth in life without undue fear; the coziness of a loving home; a friendly, cooperative spirit and a reverence for nature.