Parrish, Maxfield (1870-1966)

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Parrish, Maxfield (1870-1966)

One of the most popular American artists of the twentieth century and one of the most prolific, in his long career Maxfield Parrish produced book and magazine illustrations, landscapes, advertisements, posters, and murals. Although many of his paintings initially give the impression of a meticulous devotion to realism, he actually had a highly individual approach to color and lighting, and many of his most famous illustrations depict giants, dragons, genies, centaurs, mythical kingdoms, and enchanted palaces. Observers of Parrish's work have pointed out that what he really did was rearrange and improve on reality.

Parrish was born in Philadelphia. His father was a landscape painter and etcher. Parrish initially intended to be an architect, but soon shifted to illustration. By the middle 1890s he was starting to get work doing magazine covers. His first was for Harper's Weekly. In 1897 Parrish illustrated his first book, Mother Goose in Prose by L. Frank Baum, who was still a few years away from discovering Oz. One of Parrish's specialties became the illustrating of children's books, and over the next decade or so he provided imaginative pictures for The Golden Age and Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame, Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field, A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Arabian Nights.

He was in large demand as a magazine artist from the 1890s into the 1930s. One checklist of his magazine covers and illustrations includes nearly 400 items. Parrish turned out numerous covers for Century Magazine, Life, Harper's Bazaar, and Collier's. His work was also to be seen in Scribner's, McClure's, Ladies' Home Journal, and St. Nicholas. In addition, he did commercial work for a wide range of advertising accounts. These included Jell-O, Wannamaker's, Oneida Silver, H. O. Oats, Columbia Bicycle, Royal Baking Powder, and Swift's Premium Ham. Often he made use of fantasy and fairy tale elements in these pictures, utilizing knights in armor, fantastic palaces, jesters, kings, princesses, dwarfs, goddesses, and nursery rhyme characters.

Probably the most financially rewarding area was the color reproductions of Parrish's paintings that were sold by such distributors as House of Art. Daybreak, issued in 1923, has the distinction of being the best-selling art print of all time. During the 1920s and 1930s copies of the work could be seen framed and hanging in many a parlor and living room around the country. The painting shows a colonnade in the foreground with a young woman in vaguely Grecian robes reclining and a nude girl bending over her as dawn tints everything a typically Parrish pink. There are Parrish leafy branches dangling overhead and in the distance Parrish misty mountains. The model for the reclining figure was William Jennings Bryan's granddaughter and the naked little girl was Parrish's daughter. Parrish always worked from photographs that he took himself, except when depicting monsters, elves, and the like. He'd project the photo onto his drawing or painting surface and then trace it in with pencil. Another very successful print was Stars, which shows a naked young woman sitting on a rock and gazing contentedly up into the night sky. Painted a few years after Daybreak, it was also adapted from a photo Parrish shot of his daughter Jean.

Parrish's favorite model was Susan Lewin. Originally she was the housekeeper for Parrish and his family at their Vermont home, The Oaks. The artist was soon asking the attractive young woman to pose for him, and she can be seen in several of his paintings, including Sleeping Beauty. A recent biography of Parrish explained that for many years he lived with Susan and not his wife.

Parrish was responsible for several murals as well. The most famous was Old King Cole, painted for the Hotel Knickerbocker. In addition he painted The Pied Piper for the men's bar in San Francis-co's Palace Hotel and Sing A Song of Sixpence for Chicago's Sherman House. His most ambitious undertaking was a series of 18 murals, each over ten feet high, done for the offices of The Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia. Parrish worked form 1911 to 1913 on the project.

An accomplished landscape painter as well, from the middle 1930s onward he concentrated almost exclusively on the genre and did no further illustration of any kind. The landscapes included many paintings of farmhouses, old mills, and small town churches and continued to exhibit the artist's meticulous rendering and his fascination with the effects of light. He stopped painting in 1960, at the age of 90. In 1965 the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally took notice of him and purchased one of his fantasy paintings, The Errant Pan. Maxfield Parrish died the following year.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Cutler, Lawrence S., and Judy Goffman Cutler. Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective. San Francisco, Pomegranate Books, 1995.

Ludwig, Coy. Maxfield Parrish. New York, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1973.