- Historic Sites
Guess who’s having a revival—
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
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.