Maxfield Parrish


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.