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How Maxfield Parrish Got So Blue

Many people, when they hear the name “Maxfield Parrish,” think of a particularly whimsical brilliant blue that soaked the skies of many of his landscapes. In a lifetime that spanned 95 years, over 75 of them actively producing art, his paintings and illustrations wallpapered the consciousness of a country for generations. You probably don’t even realize how many of his artworks you recognize.

A hundred years ago, one in every four households had a Maxfield Parrish print. He illustrated the classic books, The Arabian Nights, and Poems of Childhood, by Eugene Field, and was the illustrator for Mother Goose in Prose (1897) by Frank L. Baum (who later wrote The Wizard of Oz). Long before Norman Rockwell painted his famous Saturday Evening Post covers, Maxfield Parrish graced the covers of Harper’s Weekly, Life, Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, and numerous other magazines of the early 20th century. At 25, he was already making a living as an artist, and never had to take another job.

Cover Art for "The Arabian Nights" by Maxfield Parrish (1909).

From the start, Maxfield Parrish was a commercial artist. He was able to support a very comfortable existence for himself and his family near Cornish, New Hampshire, a stunning New England village that became home to many artists and writers of the day. He designed and built “the Oaks,” a 20-room house overlooking the Connecticut River and Mount Ascutney in Vermont, and then added a 15-room studio where he could retreat to do his paintings and sketches. There, in the company of his favorite model and lifelong companion, Susan Lewin, a young girl who he first employed as a household assistant to his wife, Lydia, he continued to work daily for another 50 years, mostly on contract or commission.

“Dinky Bird” Illustration by Maxfield Parrish from "Poems of Childhood," by Eugene Fields.

Biography

Born Frederick Parrish in Philadelphia in 1870, the only child of Stephen Parrish and Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish, he was raised in a well-to-do home with many comforts.  His father became a well-known etcher in his own right and fully encouraged the young Fred to draw and paint. Frederick later took his grandmother’s maiden name as his middle name, which he used as his professional name from then on. He graduated Haverford College and then attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and the Drexel Institute, where he took classes with Howard Pyle, who recommended him for his first cover commission. At Drexel, he also met a young art instructor, Lydia Austin, who he married in 1895. By 1911, the couple had four children (Dillwyn, Max Jr., Stephen, and Jean).

Throughout the first part of the 20th century, Parrish did many commissions and illustrations. His paintings featured fanciful male figures or pensive female figures in the foreground of a fantastic landscape. By 1931, however, he had decided he was through with figurative painting and devoted the rest of his life exclusively to landscape painting. In an often cited AP article, he said, “I’m done with girls on rocks. I have painted them for thirteen years and I could paint them for thirteen more. That’s the peril of the commercial art game. It tempts a man to repeat himself.”

Always keenly aware of the commercial value of his artwork, Parrish entered a new phase of his career in 1935, painting landscapes for the calendar publisher, Brown and Bigelow, which continued until 1962. During those years, they printed more than 50 of his landscapes, although by the 1950s, public interest in his work had seriously waned. His wife, Lydia, died in 1953, and despite having been with Susan Lewin for four decades, he did not marry her. In 1960, at the age of 70, she married a local man she had known since childhood, although she still continued to tend to Parrish, cooking meals and assisting him in his studio.

And he enjoyed two periods―book-ending the beginning of his career in the early 1900s through the 20s, and later in the 1960s―when his work was immensely popular, he was often dismissed by critics as a second-rate artist who was mainly an illustrator. He painted his last picture at the age of 91, a landscape called “Getting Away From it All”.

At least he got to have the last laugh. In 1964, two years before his death, a retrospective of his work shown at Bennington College in Vermont helped to establish the notion of Parrish as a major contemporary American artist. The show was organized by abstract painter Paul Freeley and then-curator of the Guggenheim Museum, Lawrence Alloway, who felt his work had strongly influenced the emerging “pop art” movement. By all accounts, the best known pop artist of all time, Andy Warhol, had collected many of Parrish’s works. When the show traveled to the Gallery of Modern Art in New York, the ensuring reviews sparked a major revival of interest in Parrish’s work. That same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased the painting, “The Errant Pan,” signaling his arrival as a major artist. He was 93.

How He Got So Blue

His paintings/illustrations were unique in their vision of a highly idealized fantasy world, but one that appealed to the masses. He was and still is associated with a particularly vibrant shade of blue that blanketed the skies of his landscapes, although you will only rarely see a glimpse of that color in reality. And it was not easy for him to render. He devised a laborious technique using base of cobalt blue and white undercoating, which he then glazed with a number of thin alternating coats of oil and varnish. The particular resins he used, called Damar, are known to floresce a shade of yellow-green when exposed to ultraviolet light, giving the unique turquoise hue to the painted sky.

The first of his paintings executed specifically for massive reprint was “Daybreak,” in 1922. This painting clearly identified a huge mass market for original art, becoming the most successful art print of the 20th century. Interest spiked again in 1995 when it inspired the setting of Michael Jackson’s attempted romantic video with then wife, Lisa Marie, for the song, “You Are Not Alone.” In 2006, the original painting of Daybreak was sold at auction for a record-setting $7.6 million. This, along with the many books he illustrated and the many prints still available seems to demonstrate the longevity of his art.

The Parrish fantasy world was a safe, gentle place, far away from the pressures of real life. Parrish himself was the literal embodiment of the man who followed his bliss, fulfilling the mantra of the turn of the 21st century about a century ahead of schedule. And yet, he apparently had regrets, writing in a letter later in life that he wished music had been his main venue of creative expression, rather than “bad pictures.”

And now, more than fifty years after his death, I still pause several times a day to stare at the print of Hilltop Farm, Winter which I bought from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (no longer available), and which my sister also owns. And it still brings me great peace and joy when I view it. We all have Parrish to thank for so many peaceful moments from his paintings, and the works of others he inspired. Which brings up the constant dilemma of popular art versus the masters, is it somehow less important to touch many in small ways than to touch few with greatness? This, I believe, can be carried over into your art, and your life. It’s important to say what you can with the means available to you, and at the end of your life, hope that your body of work will amount to something that can honorably reflect who you were.

SUGGESTED READINGS:

Two of the best books I found on Parrish were Maxfield Parrish by Sylvia Yount (a lovely book to own), and Maxfield Parrish – The Landscapes, by Alma Gilbert, a very enthusiastic lifelong fan of Parrish’s, and the founder of the Parrish Museum in Plainfield, NH.

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