Maxfield Parrish remains best known for his illustrations, which often feature warmly lit scenes in which beautiful young women in diaphanous gowns inhabit idealized, classically inspired settings. He favored a vibrant color palette that included a deep, sunsethued ochre, and the color in the skies he rendered came to be called “Parrish blue.” Most of his work was done for hire; scores of magazine covers and classic children's books featured his illustrations. The most affordable way to acquire art by Parrish, however, was on the yearly calendars he produced for General Electric Company. These featured a single image that, with monthly calendar pages torn off by the end of the year, could be collected and framed. Although the popularity of Parrish's images hardly waned over the years, he eventually tired of painting the same type of scene with the same colors. After he gave up his lucrative magazine and calendar contracts, he turned to landscape painting and faded from view. During the 1960s, his early art was rediscovered and hailed as an early form of pop art, as well as prized for its position within the Golden Age of book illustration. Once again, Maxfield Parrish art seemed to be everywhere: on posters, calendars, cards, and more.
As Frederick Parrish, he was born on July 25, 1870, to Stephen and Elizabeth (Bancroft) Parrish. Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Parrishes had deep Quaker roots, including a traditional religious prohibition against graven images. Stephen Parrish had grown up hiding his artistic talent, drawing in secret in the family attic. When young Frederick exhibited a similar talent, Stephen was determined that his son would have no such need to hide. Elizabeth Parrish's family were machinists by trade, and this influence may have revealed itself in Parrish's love of constructing elaborate models of the buildings and castles he would later depict in his paintings. Parrish eventually adopted his grandmother's maiden name, Maxfield, as his middle name, and he dropped “Frederick” altogether when his career began to take off.
For Christmas 1873, Stephen Parrish gave his threeyear-old son a sketchbook partially filled with his drawings of elves and other fanciful creatures, and this inspired the child to make his own creations. Later in childhood, Parrish took to drawing dragons, cutting his drawings out with scissors and pasting them into pictures that he found in magazines. By age seven, his father became even more of a role model, selling his Philadelphia stationery store in favor of pursuing his own art full time. The move paid off handsomely: Stephen Parrish's paintings and etchings sold across the country and the family prospered.
When Parrish was 14, his parents took him with them to Europe. Over the course of two years, the family toured England, Italy, and France, visiting museums to view the works of the old masters and studying architecture, sketchbooks in hand. During an extended stay in Paris, the young Parrish took several art classes. The young teen was an exceptionally talented doodler, and he decorated his letters home with caricatures, cartoons, and sophisticated geometric shapes. After returning to Philadelphia in 1886, Stephen and his son continued their travels on a smaller scale, exploring the New England coast and sketching and painting together whenever they could. Parrish also resumed his schooling, graduating from the Haverford School near Philadelphia. Perhaps in a nod to practicality, in 1892 he enrolled at Haverford College as a student of architecture.
As a student in an academic curriculum, Parrish could not contain his sense of fun. His chemistry notebooks were embellished with doodles, with sketches framing equations and formulas. When he decided that architecture was not for him, he transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he was recognized for his sophisticated design sense. Graduating in 1895, he then shared a studio with his father in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and took several courses at Philadelphia's Drexel Institute of Art, Science & Industry. By age 25, he had won his first commission, creating murals for a private club in that city.
Art critics generally distinguish between fine art and commercial art. The first is art for its own sake: the artist is inspired by a personal vision and trusts on collectors and galleries to invest in and promote his or her work. Commercial art is done for hire; artists are asked to create a work based on a theme that is usually used in a print publication or for advertising. Although illustration has become increasingly valued, it was viewed as unworthy of coverage by the art critics of Parrish's day. In fact, schools of fine art often refused to teach illustration even up to the mid-20th century. Because Parrish worked for hire for much of his career, although his work was popular with the public, he would gain little recognition from the rarified fine arts community during his lifetime.
Within the popular press, Parrish's creation of several public murals gained him recognition as “one of the most brilliant and suggestive decorative painters in the country,” according to Smithsonian contributor Bruce Watson. In the blush of this early success, in June of 1895, he married fellow artist Lydia Austin, whom he had met at the Drexel Institute and with whom he would have four children. Days after their wedding, however, he left for a solo, two-month trip to Europe, writing his new wife long letters about the art he saw there. Returning home to Philadelphia, he immersed himself in his work, taking illustration jobs ranging from restaurant menus to advertisements, as well as being hired to produce a second Harper's cover. He was given his first book-illustration contract, for Mother Goose in Prose, in 1897. As his popularity continued to grow among the public, contracts and commissions continued to flow his way, and by 1910 Parrish was earning $100,000 a year.
In 1898, Parrish purchased 20 acres in Plainfield, New Hampshire, near his father's home in Cornish. There he built a hilltop retreat called The Oaks, which became his family's home. The Parrishes quickly became a fixture in the local arts community, participating in various events and helping to paint backdrops for community theater productions. Although known as a charming man with a playful sense of humor, Parrish was happiest at home, and he turned down several offers of professorships at prominent New England colleges in order to remain at The Oaks.
While raising their family at The Oaks, the Parrishes hired 16-year-old Susan Lewin to help Lydia with the children. To produce the realistic look in his idyllic canvasses, Parrish often employed a camera, photographing himself as well as friends and neighbors in the positions required of various characters. Slender and beautiful, Susan was soon modeling for Parrish, and as the years passed, their relationship developed into a romance. After Parrish built a private passageway between his room and his studio, where Susan lived, Lydia Parrish called on a friend to find the young woman a position with another family. Lewin ultimately returned to Parrish's studio, however, and she would remain there for over 50 years, finally marrying another man at age 71. In the meantime, Lydia began spending winters on an island off the coast of Georgia, where she became an ethnomusicologist and author, living near and recording the songs of local ex-slaves and their descendants.
Parrish's early book illustrations appeared in children's books by well-known authors such as Kenneth Graham, Louise Saunders, and L. Frank Baum and included both line art and color plates. Color printing was an evolving art, depending on the technology of the publisher, and Parrish had not yet developed his approach to color. A trip to Arizona in early 1902 gave him a chance to create seven color plates with a new varnish technique that enriched his images with depth and luminosity. The resulting art, which appeared in high-end magazines, was startlingly vivid. One of these Arizona plates, a cowboy shaded in the deep ochre of a desert sunset with an impossibly deep blue sky behind him, embodied Parrish's new signature palette, including a cerulean hue that came to be called “Parrish blue.”
As an in-demand artist, Parrish often worked on several paintings at once, adapting the laborious techniques of the old masters. Rather than mixing his colors by combining pigments, he would apply a monochrome blue wash to his paper or canvas, using his favored intense blue if the painting featured expansive skies. He would then apply a layer of varnish, let it dry, and paint an image directly from the tube, followed by a second layer of varnish, and so on, until all the elements of his picture were present. This technique of working in thin layers allowed light to pass through several pure colors and bounce back off of the white base layer, mixing in the eye of the viewer. When viewing an original painting by Parrish, one is immediately impressed by the vivid colors and sense of depth.
Parrish's stellar career began its gradual descent when modern art appeared on the scene, most famously in a show staged from February 17 to March 15, 1913, at New York City's preeminent Armory gallery. As the show toured the United States, Americans were exposed to European painting that veered sharply from the realism of the Old Masters and many contemporary artists. Containing works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Georges Seurat, and William and Marguerite Zorach, the Armory Show shocked the public and awed many art critics, who proclaimed that great art no longer needed to be pretty; it now needed to send a powerful personal message. Over the next few years, Parrish's prints would be taken off many walls and replaced with something more modern.
Meanwhile, although Parrish attempted to abandon the style that made him famous, his corporate contracts allowed him to maintain his reclusive lifestyle. He continued to produce painting after painting featuring idyllic, sun-washed scenes of beautiful young women wearing diaphanous, vaguely classical drapery, seated in verdant gardens and gazing into a brilliant blue sky or off into the distance. Companies put them on all manner of products, knowing that goods featuring Maxfield Parrish art sold well.
Challenged to create a standout painting, albeit in his popular style, Parrish photographed his 11-year-old daughter and a young neighbor, one reclining and the other bending over as if in conversation. He added classic pillars and a garden, arranging them according to “dynamic symmetry,” a popular method at the time and included his hallmark vista of distant mountain peaks. The resulting painting, called “Daybreak,”, became an instant hit with the public and sold more than 200,000 prints. Exhibited in a New York City gallery in 1925, the original canvas, as well as two other Parrish paintings, sold for $10,000 each, then a record amount for a living artist's work. In 2006, “Daybreak” would be sold again, this time for $7.6 million.
As it did for many Americans, the 1930s was a decade of change for Parrish. After the New York stock market crashed in October of 1929, the Great Depression followed, and vast unemployment, so few Americans had money to spend on art. Marking the influence of modernism, the most popular reproductions sold during this economic downturn were Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Parrish. For Parrish, who was by now comfortably wealthy and in his 60s, it was time to change course. He painted his last human figure in 1936, then devoted his time to painting landscapes, his true passion.
Over the next 25 years, Parrish painted dozens of landscapes, some of which were reproduced for calendars. Lydia Parrish died in 1953, and Susan Lewin eventually moved away, leaving him content with his own company. He continued to make his home at The Oaks, arising at 5:30 each morning and painting the landscape in and around his home. However, in 1964, a show of his work at New York's Gallery of Modern Art once again put Parrish in the limelight.
By now, pop art—also called “avant garde”—by Andy Warhol and others had developed from modern art, and it highlighted the connection between fine and commercial art. Warhol created huge canvases featuring realistic renderings of Campbell's soup cans, reproducing the printed label in detail. These works were shocking, controversial, and provoked a debate about the nature of art and its place in society. As the supporters of modern art cast their eye to the past, they located the inception of the Modern Art movement in the work of Maxfield Parrish.
Staged in 1964, New York City's Gallery of Modern Art show drew the interest of newspaper reporters, who were surprised to learn that Parrish was still alive and living in rural New Hampshire. When they arrived at The Oaks to interview the bemused artist, now in his 90s, he quipped that he planned to look into reports that he had died. As to questions about his art and its meaning, Parrish dismissed such ideas, calling himself a businessman with a brush. Nonetheless, his work once again became popular as a generation of college students started hanging his prints on their dorm-room walls. Two years after the retrospective show, on March 30, 1966, Parrish died peacefully at his home in Plainfield, New Hampshire. Although the original house at The Oaks was destroyed in a fire in 1979, a replica was built near the surviving artist's studio.
Cutler, Laurence S., and J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, Pomegranate Artbooks, 1995.
Ludwig, Coy, Maxfield Parrish, Watson Guptill, 1973.
Smith, Alma Gilbert, Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe, Philip Wilson, 2005.
New Hampshire Union Leader, December 16, 2015, Aurore Eaton, “Lydia Parrish Leaves NH for a Life in Georgia.”
New York Times, June 7, 1964, John Canaday, “Maxfield Parrish, Target Artist,” p. X2; January 23, 2016, Aileen Jacobson, “The Art of Maxfield Parrish,” p. LI9.
Smithsonian, July 1999, Bruce Watson, “Beyond the Blue: The Art of Maxfield Parrish,” p. 52.
National Museum of American Illustration, https://americanillustration.org/project/maxfield-parrish/ (January 10, 2018), “Maxfield Parrish.”□