- Under the North Light: The Life and Work of Maud and Miska Petersham by Lawrence Webster
Lawrence Webster’s appreciative biography of Maud and Miska Petersham and overview of their work exudes her admiration and enthusiasm for her subject. Her commentary is informed by her research in the extensive materials—including letters, handwritten notes, and typescripts—housed at the deGrummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Interviews with Maud and Miska’s granddaughter, Mary Peterson Reinhard, and their niece, Mitzi Shewmake, provided insights into the artists’ lives and work as well as access to the family photos and unpublished artwork included in Webster’s volume.
Those materials feature prominently in the first and longest chapter, which offers a dual biography of people from very different backgrounds whose lives intersected at the International Art Service (IAS) in New York City. Born in upstate New York in 1889, Maud Fuller could trace her ancestry back to Puritans and Quakers who had settled New England in colonial times. Her father, a Baptist minister, served parishes in several states, but the family spent every summer in Hamilton, New York, with Maud’s Quaker grandfather and her aunt, Celia Jane Sisson, who strongly influenced her life. Not only [End Page 487] did Maud spend six childhood years with Celia Jane, but her schoolteacher aunt lived with Maud and Miska and helped raise their son. Like her mother, aunt, and sisters, Maud attended college, graduating from Vassar and art school before beginning her career at IAS.
Born Petrezselyem Mihaly in a small town in Hungary in 1888, Miska moved to Budapest with his family when he was nine. He spent summers in the countryside with his shepherd grandfather, and his art was influenced by Magyar design and colorful motifs. To avoid being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, he immigrated to London after finishing his studies at the Royal National School for Applied Arts in Budapest. After months of fruitless searching for work, Miska took a friend’s advice to come to New York, where he found employment at IAS and met Maud. Three years later they married and eventually settled in Woodstock, a thriving arts community, where they built a house and studio.
Webster, who knew the Petershams while she grew up in Woodstock, stresses their love for and involvement in the community and its civic and artistic organizations. Among the visual materials interspersed in the biographical section are scrapbook pages Maud made for her granddaughter, reproductions from Miska’s art school sketchbooks, and photos of their house and studio.
Webster devotes the remaining six chapters to the Petershams’ illustrated works, grouped chronologically or thematically. Each section has the same structure: a brief overview of the books, more descriptive than analytical, followed by full-color reproductions of representative pages plus photos of the Petershams. One chapter considers their illustration of works by other authors and their relationship with editors such as May Massee. It was Massee who encouraged them to write as well as illustrate their own children’s books, starting in 1929 with Miki, about a small boy traveling in Hungary. Not only was Miki among the first American picture books set in another country, but it also showcased advances in printing processes that enabled cost-effective full-color production. The technical and thematic aspects of Miki and three other early books constitute the third chapter. Webster discusses Bible story books, nonfiction series, and American history and folklore in separate chapters before concluding with a look at books from the Petershams’ last decade.
The ratio of text to visuals is low. For example, chapter four, which discusses Bible story books, includes four pages of text plus seventeen pages of illustrations. In the chapter about the early picture books, nineteen pages of illustrations accompany four of text. Captions sometimes offer additional commentary or information, including excerpts from reviews, quotations from Maud’s notes and letters, or snippets from the books.
Webster generally relies on evaluations by others rather than offering her own critical insights. For example, her discussion of...