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