Maxfield Parrish

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.