The Provensens’ Gorgeous Vintage Illustrations of Aesop’s Fables
Timeless visual exorcism of our greatest moral shortcomings, bridging antiquity and today.
By Maria Popova
Predating both Arabian Nights and the Grimm fairy tales by centuries, the fables of Aesop, an ancient Greek slave and storyteller who lived between 620 and 560 BCE, endure as some of humanity’s most influential narratives. “He made use of humble incidents to teach great truths,” wrote the Greek philosopher Philostratus of Aesop, and indeed these fables explore the most complex facets of human morality and its failings — deceit, greed, vanity, impatience, egotism, cowardice — through seemingly simple stories featuring animal protagonists. The fables themselves weren’t recorded in writing during Aesop’s lifetime and how exactly they made their way from ancient Greece to world domination remains uncertain. Though the core morality tales have endured over the centuries, the stories have been retold and reimagined over and over, and among the most magical aspects of their constant reinvention has been the art that has accompanied them.
There is hardly a more wonderful, or better-matched, visual take on the tales than that by Alice and Martin Provensen, whose gift for translating history’s greatest storytelling into visual magic spans from Homer to classic fairy tales to William Blake.
In 1965, nearly a decade after their adaptation of the Iliad and Odyssey, they illustrated Louis Untermeyer’s version of Aesop’s Fables (public library) — sadly, another ghost from the cemetery of out-of-print gems, but one summoned back to life here for a new round of admiration and appreciation, thanks to my own surviving copy of the magnificent tome and some generous friends’ large-format scanner. From The Boy Who Cried Wolf to The Fox and the Grapes to The Tortoise and the Hare to The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, these familiar, beloved tales shine with uncommon warmth and wisdom under the Provensens’ vibrant touch and expressive elegance.
Aesop’s Fables is sublime in its entirety, and the few remaining copies still findable online and off are very much worth the scavenger hunt.
Published September 4, 2013