Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish

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Maxfield Parrish, the son of the painter, Stephen Parrish, was born in Philadelphia on 25th July, 1870. He was educated at the Haverford College, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Drexel Institute, where he studied under Howard Pyle.

After his marriage to Lydia Austin he settled in Plainfield, New Hampshire. In 1895 Parrish designed his first cover for Harper's Weekly. As well as working for other magazines such as Collier's and Scribner's Magazine.

Parrish also provided the illustrations for a large number of books including Poems of Childhood (1889), Mother Goose in Prose (1897), Dream Days (1906), Tanglewood Tales (1910), The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics (1911) and The Knave of Arts (1925).

Parrish provided the art work for posters and advertisements. His greatest success came with colour prints designed for the mass market. The Garden of Allah (1919) and Dawn (1920) sold in very large numbers. In the 1920s Parrish concentrated on fine art painting. Several of these works featured Susan Lewin. She had been initially hired at the age of 16 as a nanny. She eventually became his mistress and his wife left the family home.

In the 1930s Parrish's work, criticised as being too sentimental, went out of fashion. In 1931, he commented, "I'm done with girls on rocks", and decided to concentrate on landscapes. Though never as popular as his earlier works, he profited from them.

Maxfield Parrish died at the age of 95 on 30th March 1966.

Maxfield Parrish was established just off the King's Road in 1972. [3] [4] The brand was named after the American artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish, who was admired by founder Nigel Preston. [3]

Preston, who had trained in art and then dabbled in the music industry – once supporting Hawkwind at a gig in Hampstead – began with a stall on Portobello Road selling women's tops made of chamois leather. He was self taught and had made clothes for many years, learning pattern making by deconstructing clothes. [3] Originally the store focused on what Preston's obituary described as men's clothes "of dandyesque theatricality". He was soon attracting pop stars of both sexes and his clothes were worn by, among others, Suzi Quatro. Another fan was Julie Andrews who, it was reported, would only buy her leather trousers from Maxfield Parrish. [3] In the early days the business was underfunded and Preston lived out of a suitcase he received financial support from David Ford, who was his business partner until 1984. [4]

By 1978, Preston's wife Brenda Knight – who had first met him when she provided some fashion PR that secured Maxfield Parrish coverage in Vogue – began to move the brand towards more mainstream fashion, spotting its potential in international markets. [3] [4] It began showing at the London Designer Collections – forerunner to London Fashion Week – and by 1981 it was attracting coverage for its suede and leather fashions. [5] Suzy Menkes said in October that year: "Nigel Preston of Maxfield Parrish has some superb ideas in suede and leather, especially pin-striped suede and big skirts in the softest chamois, but the collection needs editing". [6]

The label very quickly found an audience – thanks in part to a huge revival of interest in wearing suede and leather at the start of the 1980s. A 1982 article, also by Suzy Menkes, said that leather trousers had become a "classic" and suede jackets were no longer a luxury item it said this was a British fashion story – most Italian designers were buying their skins from the UK. The article singled out Jean Muir, Roland Klein and Maxfield Parrish, saying: "Now Maxfield Parrish have a thriving wholesale business with impressive export orders and show everything from seductive long skirts to simple T-shirts, pin-striped blazers and even jewel-coloured sheepskins, which are a fashion gallop away from heavy, horsey ginger suede". [7]

Dress of the Year and Pirelli Calendar Edit

In 1982, the brand was selected to be part of the Dress of the Year at Fashion Museum, Bath. That year two outfits were chosen – one comprised a linen ensemble by Margaret Howell and Maxfield Parrish supplied a chamois leather outfit the selector was Grace Coddington of Vogue. [8]

In 1984, Maxfield Parrish was among 14 British designers chosen to create garments and accessories for a revival of the Pirelli Calendar. The company designed a fur cape featuring a tyre track motif and a wrap dress in chamois leather. The calendar was photographed by Norman Parkinson and the Maxfield Parrish designs created for the photography are now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, having earlier been auctioned for charity. All calendar designs were also displayed in the museum in 1986–87. [9]

Preston continued to develop new techniques and ways of working with leathers. His obituary noted that he invented washed leather as a fashion item and later experimented with techniques such as painting, waxing and brocading leather, also looking for ways to increase its suppleness. He was successful in the Italian market and considered a high-fashion brand in Los Angeles. [3] By 1991, Liz Smith in The Times said: "Nigel Preston's sarong skirts, bush shirts and jackets in supple suede have long been classics collected by fashion purists". [10]

By this stage, Maxfield Parrish designs were available in the UK via retailers such as Joseph and Harvey Nichols. Preston, speaking in 1991, described how he continued to try to work suede into new shapes: "It is difficult to get fullness and suede does not float. I have just spent a week on one set of patterns trying to make the pattern 'kick' – with fabric it would have been easy". By this stage, most of the company's leathers were sourced from France and its biggest turnover was in Italy. [11]

Later years Edit

The brand was continued by Preston and Knight after their move to France in 1993 – they had bought a chateau there in the 1980s. Preston died in 2008 and Knight continued to work under the Preston label. [2] [3]


McDowell, Colin, McDowell's Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1985.


d'Aulay, Sophie, "Cologne Delivers the Crowds Three-Day German Show Had Excitement…," in DNR, 12 August 1994.

Socha, Miles, et al., "New York Trade Shows: Getting Fancy for Spring," in WWD, 30 September 1999.

For centuries it was believed that by adorning the body with the skin of an animal, the wearer was thereby encouraged to develop its attributes. Accordingly, a lion denoted strength and courage, while a rabbit implied a rather inferior metamorphosis. In time certain types of fur, especially those more difficult to find such as ermine, became symbols of wealth, power, privilege, and—ultimately—in Western culture, eroticism. The history of wearing animal skin is varied and responses to it differ from culture to culture and have changed with time. In contemporary Western culture, there is still a certain amount of prestige attached to the fur, yet less due to pressure by groups such as Lynx, the Green movement, and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Leather, however, and its more "well-bred" counterpart suede, are still generally acceptable in fact a whole mythology exists for the rebellious black leather jacket. These seemingly arbitrary distinctions and distortions can be set against the continuing success of the company Maxfield Parrish, whose name for some brings to mind the production of well-cut and crafted suede, sheepskin, and leather garments. The company was founded twenty years ago by designer Nigel Hayter Preston who was born in Reading, Berkshire in 1946. After studying painting and graphic design at Dartington Hall, Devon, Preston moved into interior design, toyed for a time with music, and in turn began designing clothes for his friends in the record industry.

This low-key venture took off so successfully that by the end of the 1960s Preston was producing stage outfits for names such as Suzy Quatro and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. From these humble beginnings Maxfield Parrish was to become an international label, synonymous in womenswear with the design and production of suede, leather, and sheepskin clothing which displayed unusual combinations of color— thanks to Preston's studies in fine art—and classic relaxed styles whose defined cutting betrays the discipline of a training in graphic design.

During the production cycle of the company's definitive garments it is the choosing of the skins which is of the utmost importance for the designer. Those of the softest, supplest kind are selected so they can be cut into and shaped like cloth, one of the company's trademarks. Preston handles the materials confidently, using the same methods other designers would utilize with more malleable wool, seen in classically styled outerwear such as the 1982 voluminous loose coats and jackets in soft blues, faded rose or beige, worn over softly draped skirts and cropped trousers. One of his more innovative methods is to overlap several skins to produce a montaged patchwork textured effect. This is used as a bolt of cloth from which he cuts various garments such as tubular or sarong skirts and tops.

For years, Preston and partner Brenda Knight worked in a design studio based in a Normandy chateau to creates sample collections of elegant, easy to wear garments which are then manufactured and distributed from the company's administrative base in London. By the middle 1990s Maxfield Parrish had become an international brand name in retail the goods bearing the name were available in boutiques and stores in Europe and the United States.

Despite the fragmented nature of women's fashion at the end of the 20th century with its changing styles and alternative looks, there have always been lower profile designers more interested in producing elegant styles in the most refined materials. Maxfield Parrish is one such firm it has relied on the ongoing development of new techniques in the cut and construction of leather, suede, and sheepskin, using only the finest materials, and availing its luxurious garments to a certain segment of society for which wearing fur or related accoutrements is of the utmost importance.

Maxfield Parrish - History

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Maxfield Parrish was originally born Frederick Parrish in 1870 into the artistic Philadelphia family of Stephen and Elizabeth Parrish. His father worked as an artist, and he introduced his son to art history, museums, and fine architecture. He traveled to Europe with his father, adorning his letters home with his own illustrations of what he had seen. Later, he lived with his father at a Massachusetts colony for artists after dropping out of Haverford College. Later, he continued his education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and became interested in the illustrations of Howard Pyle soon, he developed his own unique style as he pursued a career as an illustrator himself. Parrish had a fertile imagination, and he used it to create vibrant fantasy images in bold colors. He was particularly fond of all the hues of blue but especially what became known as "Parrish Blue", and he experimented with glazes to give the work a luminescent, glowing quality. His sense of scale and proportion gave his carefully designed work a larger than life quality that people loved.

Maxfield Parrish c. 1900
A Maxfield Parrish work was first to decorate the cover of Harpers Weekly magazine when he was only 25 years old, and he also painted murals such as his unique depiction of "Old King Cole" for a University of Pennsylvania theatre club. Early paintings were reproduced in books and popular magazines such as The Century, Life, and Ladies Home Journal. Parrish may be best known not for his paintings and murals but rather for his calendars, first produced for the Edison Mazda Company which was later to become part of General Electric. The public eagerly awaited the publication of the yearly calendars, cropping them to hang on walls and in frames-- a terrific advertising success for the company. Parrish worked at an estate he called "The Oaks" in Cornish, New Hampshire in a house he built largely himself-- excited to put his architectural studies to practical use. Cornish became a local artist colony toward the turn of the century, thanks to Parrish's rapidly expanding set of friends and colleagues who were attracted to his unique blend of artistic talent and intellect.

Demand for Parrish illustrations was so strong that he always maintained a strong pipeline of commissions and earned large sums of money for the day. He bored of the constraints of producing work for advertising, and he wanted to concentrate on producing paintings specifically with the intent of high quality lithographic print reproduction. In 1922, he produced his most famous and popular work "Daybreak." This scene is comprised of his daughter Jean and her friend Kitty Own, the daughter of the orator William Jennings Bryan. Like many Parrish works of this period, the girls are superimposed in a fantasy scene of vibrant colors and a type of sheen which was unique to Parrish. Later in life, he produced a series of lovely landscapes for Brown & Bigelow calendars published between 1937 and 1962. Maxfield Parrish continued working on an array of work until he turned 70 years old, enjoying spending time with his long time model and girlfriend Susan Lewin. He died 25 years later in 1966 at the age of 95, still at his New Hampshire estate which he had called home for so many years.

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Maxfield Parrish

Before we begin our discussion, we need to define the word "reproduction". All of Maxfield Parrish's magazine covers, calendars and advertisements were taken from a painted original which was then reproduced on paper by the process of color printing. Since true original paintings are scarce and expensive, collectors often use the word "original" to mean a print, reproduced on paper about the same time the original was painted.

In this article, we will refer to reproductions either as "new reproductions" or "old reproductions". An old reproduction means a period piece printed around the time the original was painted new reproduction will mean a recent copy, typically made during the mid-1960s to the present. It is these later reproductions that can cause problems for unsuspecting or uninformed buyers. Information in this article will not make you an expert but it will give you a better understanding of new reproductions and some of the ways to detect them.

New reproductions look new. Most of them have a shiny surface that looks similar to vinyl. The colors of the new pieces are usually much more brilliant than the old reproductions. New reproductions also generally lack the detail found in the old works--new pieces look fuzzy especially in shaded areas. One of the best ways to get a feeling for the new colors is to buy some new prints or posters and hold them side by side with originals. If you're just starting out, take some of these new pieces along with you to an antique show and compare them with originals there (always asking permission to do so--Parrish dealers are usually happy to help and can give you tips of their own).

The kind of backing on a print and its effect on authenticity and value is often contradictory. Many Parrish collectors and dealers prefer to remove old paper backing and cardboard matting and replace it with new. On the other hand, many dealers and auction firms say that prices for prints with original backing bring more and won't even accept reframed pieces. To complicate matters, some persons will remove a common print from a period frame and replace it with a new reproduction print by a well known name like Parrish. Sometimes old paper backings from common prints are removed from larger frames and applied to a smaller frame that holds a new reproduction--the edges are then trimmed to give it the appearance of an original backing. Never assume that because the paper backing is intact and appears to be old that you have an old reproduction.

If you are considering purchasing a reframed Parrish piece, you may want to ask why it was reframed and have the seller explain the method used. There are times when a piece should be reframed. Acids in old wood pulp matting, for example, can visibly damage a print. Reframing could also be necessary because moisture may have gotten inside the frame which could damage the mat or the print itself.

If possible, try to examine the print removed from the frame. Old paper looks and feels old. Paper used in old pieces is generally heavier than papers used over the last thirty years. The back side of old paper is usually colored anywhere from a very light brown to dark brown. This color is actually a patina or film that appears gradually on the surface as the paper ages. It occurs on both sides but is usually easier to see on the back side which was usually white at the time it was printed. Cigarette smoke, smoke from furnaces, wood burning stoves and fireplaces and smoke and grease from cooking also add to the discoloration.

Generally, most old prints also show some degree of fading. Looking at the print out of the frame with the image side up, the paper hidden under the mat or frame is usually darker. Keep in mind that the severity of fading may not be due entirely to age. The amount of fading can be considerably influenced by the type of light and length of time the print was exposed. A print exposed to bright sunshine will show more fading than a print in indirect lighting.

Measuring a Parrish is one of the more important means of determining whether it is an original. The chart below is a list of titles and measurements of many, but not all, reproductions. All measurements are for the image area only and do not include a border unless stated.

In addition to detecting fakes, measuring a piece helps you guard against "cropped" images. The term "cropping" is used to describe the process of cutting a piece to make it smaller. A piece might be cropped to remove a damage or to fit the piece in a special frame. Many old pieces were cropped but cropping greatly lowers the value of old pieces and should be avoided. If the overall image measures smaller than what it should, you may have either a cropped old piece or a new reproduction. If the image is larger that what it should be, you may likewise have a reproduction.

You should be aware that new reproductions made with computer scanning equipment can produce prints the exact size of old pieces. Use measurements as only one part of your total examination. Never rely on just one or two tests to form your judgement of authenticity.

Land of Make-Believe

Land of Make-Believe is exemplary of Maxfield Parrish’s power to create a portal into an imaginary world, imbue his subjects with mystery and delight, and create compositions of tremendous visual impact and power. Parrish’s ability to blend Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, Old Master technique, a strict adherence to the laws of proportion and a sense of wonder is nowhere more evident than in Land of Make-Believe, one of Parrish’s earliest large-scale compositions and the first in which the artist’s muse, Sue Lewin, appears.

In 1898, following early success as an illustrator, Parrish designed and built “The Oaks,” a twenty-room house overlooking the Connecticut River in Cornish, New Hampshire, a vibrant artist’s community founded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He lived and worked there with his new bride Lydia, soon adding a fifteen-room studio where he would retreat to paint. Parrish preferred to work in his studio rather than paint en plein air, seeking to imbue his pictures with an ethereal sense of wonder, rather than a purely factual recording of place. Instead of modeling figures and compositions through rounds of sketching, he used photographs to set scenes. For a short period between 1905 and 1910, Parrish painted on large canvases affixed to board, like Land of Make-Believe. Thereafter, he painted on either masonite or stretched paper.

In 1905 the Parrishes hired Susan Lewin, the sixteen-year old niece of Maxfield’s brother Stephen’s housekeeper, to help Lydia with their first child, Dillwyn. Later that year she would model for the first time for Parrish for Land of Make-Believe. Parrish was so taken with her as a model that she would go on to be his principal model and muse for the rest of his painting career. As Judy Cutler notes, "When Susan bounded around The Oaks with babes in arms, Parrish watched her with fascination. He imagined her as his counterpart to Lord Leighton's companion model, Dene. When he first asked her to model for him and that first pose resulted in the painting Land of Make-Believe, Parrish was so happy with the outcome that he began to use Susan as his constant model." (L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, San Francisco, California, 1995, p. 11)

Lewin was tall and willowy with thick cascading hair and an oval face with large expressive eyes. Her romantic looks were a perfect fit for Parrish’s Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities. He took from the Pre-Raphaelites their precision, idealism and romantic taste. He also admired the delicate and laborious compositions of the Czech Art Nouveau painter and illustrator Alphonse Mucha. The fanciful subject matter of Land of Make-Believe demonstrates the influence of his teacher Howard Pyle, "who emphasized to Parrish the importance of historical accuracy and the need for models to wear authentic costumes if at all possible, for the audience wished to transport themselves into the image and fantasize as to its meaning." (L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish and the American Imagists, Edison, New Jersey, 2004, p. 74) Parrish became aware of the commercial appeal of historical scenes and adapted the practice of working from the costumed model.

Land of Make-Believe portrays two figures in a lush and magical garden. The main figure, based on a photograph of Lewin in costume, stands in a contrapposto pose among verdantly blooming climbing roses. The medieval garb of the figures adds to the fanciful escapism of the scene. Parrish's highly idealized fantasy worlds like Land of Make-Believe appealed to a large audience. His fantasy world is a safe, gentle place, far away from the pressures of real life. Land of Make-Believe was thus the perfect illustration for the frontispiece to Rosamund Marriott Watson’s Make-Believe published in Scribner’s Magazine in August 1912. Marriott Watson’s poem reminisces about the care-free childhood world of “let’s pretend” filled with enchanted woods, castles and witches.

Parrish was particularly interested in light effects on nature, as well as on the human figure. In Land of Make-Believe he explored using both back and front lit elements. The figures in the foreground are lit with soft and subtle light, while the cliffs in the background glow brilliantly in the setting sun. The spotlight on the background cliffs adds plunging depth to the composition. Anchoring the painting in the middle ground stand two monumental columns. This is a device that Parrish often used to balance his compositions and as a framing device for the fore- and backgrounds. Similar columns can be found in his most celebrated painting, Daybreak, a color lithographic print of which would become one of the most reproduced paintings in American history.

The magic and spirit of Land of Make-Believe is the result of an intricate approach to painting that was unique to Parrish. He possessed a calm and patient disposition that was perfectly suited to the arduous and time-consuming work his pictures demanded. This approach included the use of paper cut-outs, photography, props and models constructed in his workshop as well as a meticulous method of painting with glazes. Indeed, every detail from the brilliant patterning to the repetition of forms, which provide the work compositional unity, was manipulated so as to create an effective design. Parrish’s approach to his compositions derived from his early training as an architect as well as his interest in the principles of Jay Hambidge’s “Dynamic Symmetry”—a theory based on a rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek formulas to create harmonic proportions in architecture and art. Parrish wrote of his thoughtful compositions, “I lay each painting out on the basis of ‘dynamic symmetry’ or the mathematical proportion which the ancient Greeks and Egyptians found appealing to the eye. Thus by using ‘dynamic rectangles’ and ‘whirling squares’. I design the dimensions of my pictures and block them off, placing the horizon in just the right place. ” (as quoted in Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, p. 2) Once the structure of the composition was laid out, Parrish would take photographs of his costumed models. He eschewed professional models, often asking family and friends to pose for his works as he believed that these ingenues captured the spirit of innocence that he wanted his paintings to exude.

Just as he employed photographs from which to work on the figures in his compositions, Parrish often used clever methods of reproducing grand components in his studio so that he could study them and experiment with various light sources. He created the effect of natural light and shadows through artificial methods, shining lamps on models and props. Once Parrish determined exactly how he wanted to lay out his painting, he would outline the composition using either a photo projection or cut-outs applied to the surface. He usually completed the landscape first and then used a stencil of the silhouette to impose the figure on top.

Central to the success and timeless appeal of Land of Make-Believe is Parrish’s meticulous and time-consuming process of painting with glazes. Influenced by the Old Master painters, this was a slow, meticulous process that resulted in magnificent luminosity of color. Parrish began with a white base which served to light the canvas from the first layer up through the last. Then, using a stipple brush, he applied paint directly from the tube as he felt strongly about the purity of color and the resulting effect it made on the picture as a whole. Parrish subsequently layered pure pigment and varnish over and over to achieve a heightened vibrancy of colors resulting in a smooth, rich luminosity. Parrish’s glazing technique accounts for the soft, variegated light that bathes the majestic background and imbues the work with a sense of wonder. Here he magically captures both the gentle and dramatic effects of light on the figures and landscape as the hazy atmosphere cloaks the mountains in the background, while those in the front are in sharp focus. The contrast between the partially shadowed figures, rendered with soft, curvilinear forms, and the more rectilinear architectural elements and craggy terrain adds complexity to the composition as well as visual appeal.

Parrish can be credited with raising illustration to museum quality art. Among his admirers was his successor as America’s favorite painter, Norman Rockwell, who in a 1967 memorial film remembered: “Maxfield Parrish was certainly, maybe, the most popular illustrator artist and there wasn’t a home in America, hardly, that didn’t have a Maxfield Parrish print. I’m an illustrator and Maxfield Parrish was a painter-illustrator. He was in the Golden Age of Illustration. When I was in art school I admired him and he was one of my gods….I had and still have a great respect for him, as an artist and an illustrator.” (as quoted in a video interview, Parrish Blue: American Art History, 1967)

Maxfield Parrish- An Elusive Narrative

The post below is brought to you by intern Miriam Storm. Miriam interned for the American Art/Portrait Gallery branch library. She has recently completed her Master of Letters in Art History at the University of St Andrews. Despite the time she spent there, she still does not know the first thing about golf but has become an expert on the Royal Family. Interested in our intern or fellowship opportunities? Check out the available positions on our web page!

The Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery (AA/PG) Library has a dynamic collection of over 150,000 files on artists, art institutions, and collectors. These files generally contain ephemera such as small exhibition brochures, announcements of or invitations to gallery shows, press releases, clippings, and/or reproductions.  These files feature both well-known artists as well as ones that never became famous and also include illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish.

Maxfield Parrish was an illustrator of the Golden Age of Illustration and provided America with fanciful images that have enthralled viewers for decades. Parrish worked on illustrations for books written by L. Frank Baum and Kenneth Grahame, for instance, and his works were always well-received. The Smithsonian Libraries has several fine examples of books illustrated by Parrish, including Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field and The Lure of the Garden by Hildegarde Hawthorne.

Parrish’s works  were met with such immense popularity that in 1925 copies of his painting Daybreak, “could be found in one out of every four American households.”[1] Parrish’s vertical file here at AA/PG gives testament to this—Daybreak is used on two different exhibition announcements found in the file and other works were reproduced widely. Why does Parrish’s work continue to enchant audiences?

Maxfield Parrish. Daybreak. 1922. Oil on panel. 㻃.3 x 114 cm. Private Collection. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Most of Parrish’s work was specifically created for the illustration of books and commercial use. These two categories were historically thought by academic audiences to lack any deeper intentions or significance. Art created only to amuse or to sell was not usually considered as ‘fine art.’ Parrish’s works, which were both illustrative and commercial, traditionally were of little interest to the “fine art” world. Organizations such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art wondered how to make these distinctions and Parrish’s offered up his own thoughts on the separation between “fine” art and that of illustrations:

“…Why should not all such things, illustrations, decorations, miniatures, etc., be looked upon as pictures? …If they are good of their kind they are good as pictures. The Museum [The Metropolitan Museum of Art] has on its walls many pictures which are purely illustrative and nothing else. …Why not judge all these things by one standard? …It seems to me the original purpose of the work has precious little to do with the subject.”[2]

For several decades Parrish’s work suffered from this stigma, however, galleries and museums began to display his works more consistently from the late 1960s onwards, as seen by the numerous exhibition announcements found in the vertical files. The persistent nature of his work was being recognized.

This persistence comes from other-worldly qualities of his works that provide the framework for our imaginations take flight. Parrish’s work holds back the assumed narrative of the image just enough that it demands the viewer create their own. When asked to tell the story behind Daybreak, Parrish replied, “I know full well the public wants a story …but to my mind if a picture does not tell its own story, it’s better to have the story without the picture …The picture tells all there is, there is nothing more.”[3]

Instead of providing the viewer with a story, Parrish has created an elusive narrative. The mural Parrish created for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s North Wall of 1918, fills the viewer with many questions about an apparent narrative- where are they? Why are they assembled? However, no answers are provided. Something is happening but we are not sure what or why. The beauty of this image is sufficient but the responses it evokes are on par with that of ‘fine art.’ Surely a work that stimulates thoughts and questions in the mind of the viewer is valuable criteria for scholarship.

Maxfield Parrish. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s North Wall Mural.
1918. Oil on Canvas. 5 ft. x 18.5 ft.  (featured on two different exhibition announcements in the vertical files)

Parrish creates captivating and dream-like worlds. It is that elusiveness that enthralls the viewer and defies traditional scholarship as it cannot be easily dissected. Simply because Parrish used his talents for commercial illustration should not discredit him in any way. His work presented an elusive narrative that persistently placed his work in the public eye and more recently in the realm of serious scholarship and will undoubtedly continue to do so for years to come.

Are you curious to know what kind of scholarship there is on Maxfield Parrish? Check out the books in the bibliography as well as Parrish’s vertical file for articles, exhibit announcements and much more! Other artists from the Golden Age of Illustration can also be found in the AAPG vertical files including Howard Pyle, Edward Penfield, and Charles Dana Gibson (creator of the Gibson Girl).

Maxfield Parrish

I am one of those people who grew up, I am now aware, in a household that was completely bourgeois. I didn’t know it as a child, of course, but the chief sign of my family’s middle-class status was not the fact that my parents subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post , or drove a green Nash with spoke wheels, or played bridge several evenings a week. It was that the nubbly, offwhite stucco walls of our house in the suburbs boasted two paintings (or rather, reproductions of paintings) by that prolific, pre-pop master of mass-appeal art, Maxfield Parrish.

Maxfield Parrish? Think back. Those distant, ethereal nymphs, swathed in diaphanous drapery as they mooned on marble porticos. Those muscular, mythological giants, striding on purple hills against a backdrop of “Parrish blue” skies. Those fairy-tale flights of steps, sprouting urns, in a glaze of golden moonlight. In the teens, twenties, and thirties, reproductions of such Parrish fantasies plastered the walls of houses the country over nearly a million reproductions were sold of Daybreak alone, a painting that showed a pair of figures greeting dawn on a colonnade facing sky-blue mountains. They instilled in the popular mind, for better or worse, the notion that Parrish was what painting was about.

The public penchant for Parrish died out, however, by the early forties, and his name was all but forgotten for twenty years (possibly the shortest period of oblivion ever endured by an artist). With the arrival of pop art in the sixties came a revival of interest in earlier mass-appeal art—and Parrish was “in” again. In 1964 Lawrence Alloway, a transplanted British critic and popular-culture enthusiast (it was he who coined the term “pop art”) rediscovered Parrish. With painter Paul Feeley he organized a Parrish show at Bennington College that later came to New York and caused a bit of a flurry. Parrish, Alloway said, was a “target” artist—that is, his art was aimed at an assigned mark. “He never thought much about painting a picture,” wrote Alloway, “without having its destination ready and waiting.”

Whatever the original purposes were that animated the artist, the Metropolitan Museum of Art now owns a Parrish painting ( The Errant Pan ) no fewer than seventeen Parrish shows have taken place in museums across the country a documentary film has been made of Parrish’s life and the first major New York gallery show of Parrish’s work since 1936 was staged this past summer. As a painter Parrish need no longer be seen in the context of pop. A master of his craft who never let technical standards lapse, Parrish produced work that can be enjoyed for its unique presence—and as a brilliant, sui generis species of ripe American corn.

Back in 1964, to everyone’s surprise, Parrish turned out to be alive and thriving (he died two years later, four months before his ninety-sixth birthday as with the Metropolitan Museum, 1970 marks the centennial of his birth). Teased by vague memories of the Parrish eunuchs and harem maidens that had disported on my childhood walls, I interviewed him at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he had lived for more than sixty-five years. A small, solidly constructed man with faded blue eyes and a head of ice-white hair, he said he felt the new appreciation of his work was “a bit highbrow.” “I’m hopelessly commonplace,” he added. “I’ve always considered myself strictly a ‘popular’ artist.”

A “popular” artist Parrish certainly was, probably just as much in his time as N. C. Wyeth, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, and Norman Rockwell. It wasn’t only his “arty” pictures, which seemed to tell fabulous stories at a time when this country was still in the mood for fairy tales it was also his lurid, theatrical sense of color—his electric, other-worldly purples and reds, lush golds and apricots and greens, built up, glaze on glaze, to a hard photographic finish that betrayed no brush strokes. He used a certain shade of cobalt straight from the tube, but so ingeniously that it became widely known as “Parrish blue.” Moreover, he exhibited a comic flair as an illustrator. Fond of moppets and gnomish, mischievous figures, Parrish used both endlessly in coy covers for Collier’s and Life , plates for such classics as The Arabian Nights and Mother Goose , and advertisements for JeIl-O, Edison Mazda light bulbs, Fisk tires, and Columbia bicycles. The famous mural Old King Cole , which still adorns the bar of New York’s St. Regis Hotel, is a Parrish production, and the calendars he produced for the remembrance-advertising firm of Brown & Bigelow have sold more than seven and a half million copies.

When I interviewed Parrish, we sat, surrounded by books, his paintings, and family keepsakes, in an upstairs room of the workshop barn that had served as living quarters since the death of his wife eleven years before. Parrish roamed freely over ninety-three years of life, his mind as clear as the clean Cornish air. There was never too much doubt in his mind, he said, that he would become an artist. His father, Stephen Parrish, though descended from a long line of Philadelphia Quakers who saw sin in the drawing of pictures, had broken away to become a painter and etcher. Not only did he instruct young Maxfield in the “sinful arts,” but he also took him abroad on frequent trips to soak up European culture. (“This morning Papa and I took a walk through the Long picture gallery at the Louvre and I enjoy the pictures more and more each time I see them,” Maxfield wrote at fifteen to his grandmother.)

Inevitably, Europe worked on him. His early paintings, with their ordered gardens, classical porticoes, mythological figures, Renaissance maidens, and youths dressed in the costume of the commedia dell’arte , project a sentimental European reverie it was not until years had passed that he discovered that America had its own wealth of traditional symbols.

Though Parrish entered Haverford College in 1888 to study architecture, he soon refocused on art. The college also produced a wealth of visual material. Reminiscing about it for the Haverford Review in 1942, he said: “Lying under those copper beeches … looking into the cathedral windows above did a lot more for us than contemplation of the Roman Colosseum. There were grand trees in those days, and grand trees do something to you.”

Parrish quit Haverford in his junior year to attend classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the same time he enrolled at the Drexel Institute to study with the noted illustrator Howard Pyle. Pyle, however, found him too advanced, so Parrish set up a studio of his own in Philadelphia. In 1895 he married Lydia Austin, a New Jersey girl who was to be his wife for fifty-eight years they had three sons and a daughter. That year was a good one for Parrish: a cover for Harper’s Weekly showing a plump cook holding a plum pudding (cooks and food were a favorite Parrish motif) launched him as an illustrator. He never again lacked work.

His highly successful book-illustrating career began in 1897 with plates for Mother Goose in Prose , by L. Frank Baum (famous for The Wizard of Oz ). They were a smash, and soon Parrish found himself doing Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days and The Golden Age , and an edition of Washington Irving’s History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker .

He also did many posters around the turn of the century, winning a number of national poster contests. The most important was sponsored by Century magazine in 1897 his winning entry depicted a nude girl seated on the grass.

In 1898 Parrish and his wife moved to the hills of New Hampshire, where his father had built a house at Cornish, a tiny village on the Connecticut River. Cornish was going strong as a culture colony by the time the Parrishes arrived: their neighbors included the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the architect Charles Adams Platt, the American novelist Winston Churchill, and Judge Learned Hand. Cornish crept into Parrish’s paintings and stayed there—the high cone of nearby Mount Ascutney and the Italian gardens that had become the rage among his friends provided him with endless backdrop material. A gifted mechanic, he also set up a completely equipped shop, turning out wooden urns, balusters, and columns as props for his pictures. He made miniature mountains, too, by splitting quartz rocks an “Arizona scene” that he had painted, he boasted to a friend, was made of materials from his own grounds.

Cornish also provided plenty of romps. A favorite indoor sport was the tableau a big picture frame was set up at one end of a room and covered with tightly stretched gauze, behind which the participants, often costumed, struck their poses. Before World War I, Parrish, with the aid of some friends, built a big house in Cornish—a rambling frame structure that, when I saw it, was closed and going sadly to seed. “This room saw some wonderful parties when we were young and reckless,” Parrish recalled, pointing out a baronial, 40-foot music room. “We’d stretch a dinner table down the length of it. Judge Hand, Felix Frankfurter, even Ethel Barrymore once came. VVe had recitals by the Olive Mead quartet and Grace Arnold, a mezzo-soprano. And there was that fine poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. He was very shy, but sometimes I’d coax him into reading for us.”

After a siege of tuberculosis in 1901 Parrish spent a winter recuperating in the Adirondacks, a circumstance that changed his creative methods. Whereas he had worked primarily in black and white, the below-zero Adirondack air froze his ink, and he turned to oil paints.

The first book in which his color paintings appeared was Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1903), a serious architectural study for which Miss Wharton felt Parrish’s “brilliant idealizations of the Italian scene” were out of key. As she tells it in her memoirs, A Backward Glance , her publishers also objected, insisting her text was too “dry” for Parrish’s “fairy-tale pictures.” Asked to provide “anecdotes” and human interest, she refused, but the book nevertheless became a steady seller.

After Miss Wharton’s book Parrish returned to illustrating children’s books now in color: The Arabian Nights , Eugene Field’s Poems of Childhood , and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales .

In terms of size his largest single commission was a set of murals for the Girls’ Dining Room at the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia, done between 1912 and 1915. It consisted of seventeen panels, each about 10 feet high and 5 feet wide. Like Pyle and N. C. Wyeth, Parrish loved to paint costumes, and the theme of the panels was expressed in one large painting, Italian Fete , which depicted a group of young people in Italian Renaissance garb on the steps of a palazzo . On another commission from the Curtis Publishing Company he designed a mosaic for execution in Favrile glass by the famous Louis Comfort Tiffany. Parrish’s design, Dream Garden , was another of his fantasy landscapes, including a waterfall, and the 15-by-49-foot glass mosaic, finished in 1915, is still in place in the Curtis entrance hall.

Outside of winter trips Parrish lived and worked in Cornish until his death. Having outlasted all of his contemporaries and some of their children, he seemed, when I visited him, still a lively old man despite his loneliness—slightly deaf but still eager for company, to talk, to laugh, to make his presence felt. He has done that in his art—and though as a painter he will never rank among this country’s greats, he has earned for himself a chapter in the history of American taste.

Art History News

Maxfield Parrish, Edison Mazda Lamp Works Calendar featuring Dawn, 1918. Lithographic reproduction of original oil painting, printed by Forbes Lithography Co. Private collection. Photograph: David Putnam.

Maxfield Parrish was one of the most popular American artists of the early 20th century. Known for his unique artistic style blending realism and fantasy, Parrish created images that were enjoyed by both elite collectors and the American public. His paintings and illustrations were often distributed as high quality color lithographic reproductions, and included on advertisements, posters and calendars. More than fifty prints of Parrish’s most famous work, as well as a number of original oil paintings, will be on view in Maxfield Parrish: The Power of the Print, a focus exhibition at the Currier Museum of Art, October 9, 2015 through January 10, 2016.

Maxfield Parrish, (Philadelphia, PA, 1870-1966, Windsor, VT), Edison Mazda Lamp Works Calendar featuring Lamp Seller of Bagdad, 1923. Lithographic reproduction of original oil painting (1922) printed by Forbes Lithography Co.36 x 17 inches. Private Collection. Photo by David Putnam.

“Maxfield Parrish combined the creativity and virtuosity of a fine artist with the keen business sense of a commercial artist,” said Samantha Cataldo, exhibition curator. “His figural and landscape paintings were masterfully rendered and greatly appealing, but it was his engagement with the emerging printing technology of the time that catapulted him to fame. His images became staples in homes and business across America.”

Parrish’s work appeared in magazines and books since the 1890s and his paintings were distributed as prints as early as 1904. It was between the 1910s and the early 1930s that Parrish created some of his most enduring images, which were disseminated in various forms. His most famous artwork,

was a painting that Parrish created specifically to be reproduced using high-quality color lithography. Daybreak’s popularity was so great that within just a few years some estimates claimed that 1 in 4 American homes owned a copy of this print.

Between 1917 and 1932, Parrish created art calendars for General Electric’s Edison Mazda Lamp division that featured figural, fantastic scenes—more than 20 million of these calendars were produced. These calendar prints are often considered the best print examples of Parrish’s work, and all of these stunning images will be on view in the exhibition.

While the public consumed his prints, private collectors purchased his paintings. In a move that was ahead of its time, Parrish wisely maintained the copyright on all of his images, allowing him to collect royalties for reproductions and making him one of America’s most financially successful artists.

Today, Parrish’s popularity remains strong, particularly here in New Hampshire, the artist’s adopted home of more than 60 years. In 1999, the Currier presented Maxfield Parrish: 1870-1966, a traveling retrospective organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It remains one of the highest-attended shows in the Museum’s 85-year history. A more focused exhibition, The Power of the Print aims to explore how and why Parrish became, and remains, such a popular American artist.

About the Exhibition

This focus exhibition features vintage lithographic prints, ads, posters, magazines, books, greeting cards and calendars that feature Parrish’s works. The exhibition is largely drawn from private collections, but also includes work from the Currier’s collection, as well as from the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. It also features several Parrish paintings, including the Currier’s visitor favorite,

About Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish was born Frederick Parrish in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1870 to Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish and Steven Parrish, a noted engraver and painter. He studied architecture at Haverford College, and art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as well as at Drexel Institute, where he audited courses with famed illustrator Howard Pyle (1853�). In 1898, Parrish moved to Plainfield, New Hampshire, near Cornish, where he built his home and studio, which he named “The Oaks” after the distinguishing trees on the land. He lived there until his death in 1966.

Beyond the Blue: The Art of Maxfield Parrish

Between the world wars, artist Maxfield Parrish was the common man's Rembrandt. When a Parrish print was placed in a department store window, crowds gathered to admire it. Hotels hung his dreamscapes in their lobbies. Housewives bought his calendars, viewed them for a year, then cut off the dates and framed the pictures. His 1922 painting Daybreak became a decorating sensation and pop icon of the 1920s, selling more than 200,000 prints.

A short, puckish man with piercing blue eyes, Parrish painted the stuff dreams are made of. His trademarks were lush gardens, ecstatic women and his famous "Parrish blue," the color skies must surely be in any Eden worth the name.

A generation after his death, Maxfield Parrish remains one of America's best-known and least-known artists. Though his utopias still adorn calendars and posters and his images are sold as computer screen savers and mouse pads, refrigerator magnets and tote bags, few have ever seen his paintings in person. A major retrospective now at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia offers visitors an opportunity to do just that. Going beyond the blue, the exhibition features more than 170 works from Parrish's 68-year career. Those who know him only for his "girls on rocks" will be startled by the imagination, virtuosity and sheer delight of his designs. The show includes his enchanting children's illustrations and magazine covers, his ambitious murals, his machine-tooled maquettes and the lonely landscapes he painted into his 90s. After showing in Philadelphia through September 25, "Maxfield Parrish: 1870-1966" will travel to the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, and to the University of Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in New York.

Watch the video: Visions of Paradise: The Oneiric Worlds of Maxfield Parrish