Maxfield Parrish was one of America's most beloved artists
working during the "Golden Age of American Illustration."
He achieved incredible artistic renown and critical acclaim
during his lifetime and has continued to interest new audiences
ever since. His prolific body of work has been reproduced
in books, calendars, art prints, advertisements, and magazines
for generations. His paintings and murals always utilized
a unique juxtaposition of designed elements, luminescent
colors, photorealistic subjects and romantic images which
combined to captivate his viewers.
Maxfield Parrish so dominated the images America loved
that in the 1920's one out of four homes had his world of
make-believe hanging on their walls. In a survey taken in
1925, van Gogh, Cezanne and Parrish were thought to be the
three greatest artists of all time. Consequently, Maxfield
Parrish was the single most popular American artist of the
early decades of the 20th century. The continuing demand
for his art prints today indicates America's fondness for
his fantasy images.
The physically striking Maxfield Parrish was Frederick
Parrish, the son of the noted etcher Stephen Parrish and
Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish. Parrish's early years were filled
with privilege and education. His father was not only an
inspiration to him as an artist, but he also exposed the
precocious lad to European museums and to classical art.
Frederick (later Parrish adopted his maternal grandmother's
maiden name as his Christian name), was particularly drawn
to such contemporary English artists as the Pre-Raphaelites,
Rossetti, and Lord Leighton. Parrish took an immediate interest
in Leighton's art, his lifestyle, and that shaped Parrish's
artistic vision, and most certainly contributed to the creation
of his curious blend of naturalism, fantasy and romanticism.
After a brief and belabored period of studying architecture
at Haverford College, Parrish dropped out to study painting
full time. Soon, he had painted his first serious work,
'Moonrise', while he was living with his father at a Gloucester,
Massachusetts artist colony. Simultaneously he enrolled
at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. While at the Academy,
Parrish became familiar with the work of Howard Pyle and
audited Pyle's first classes in illustration at Drexel Institute.
Parrish quickly realized that the use of historic subject
matter captured the sentiments of the print audience, and
he decided upon his career choice. There was a great demand
for talented illustrators as magazines proliferated.
Another influential force in Parrish's academic career
were the theories advanced by the historian-illustrator,
Jay Hambidge, who preached in a series of lectures at Yale
about a composition style which he called "dynamic symmetry."
This system offered artists a formula for reproducing natural
proportions in their works. It gave Parrish a taste for
the symmetry that was to later become such a major part
of his art. In fact, almost every one of his works is based
upon this technique. It became a system for him; first he
did montage layouts which he would then paint. The final
execution was almost etching-like, precisely articulated
with romantic images emanating from his incredibly fertile
imagination. The colors appearing in Parrish's works were
so bold that even today cobalt blue is still referred to
as "Parrish blue." These images will stand forever, unique
and strong blending into a fantasy world never witnessed
before or since.
After painting the mural of 'Old King Cole' in 1895 for
the Mask and Wig Club, a thespian society at the University
of Pennsylvania, Parrish's work began to be exhibited and
published, and ultimately he became the center of attention
nationally. By the age of 25, Parrish was commissioned to
paint his first magazine cover for Harper's Bazaar.
Following quickly on the heels of that success, Parrish
was inducted into the Society of American Artists in 1897,
based on the brilliance of his seminal painting, The Sandman.
In successive years Maxfield Parrish garnered major commissions
for many national magazines and books, including a yearly
calendar contract with Edison Mazda (General Electric).
His success attracted a group of fellow artists and also
admirers of his estate, called "The Oaks," near Cornish,
at Plainfield, New Hampshire. He personally designed and
built much of the building complex by himself with the help
of a local carpenter. By the 1900's there were many artists
and intellectuals in full-time residence at Cornish. The
area had become an artist colony in its own right and even
attracted President Woodrow Wilson to reside there during
In the years from 1904 to 1935 Parrish was never at a loss
for work. His fame grew and his commissions soared up to
$2,000 per illustration. This was a time when illustrators
were celebrities. In 1922 Parrish completed a painting that
was a pinnacle for him in many ways. This painting entitled
'Daybreak' features his daughter Jean, an artist in her
own right, and Kitty Owen, the daughter of William Jennings
Bryan. It was laid out with dynamic symmetry, embodied classical
elements, and featured a mountainous "Parrishscape" in its
background; in short, 'Daybreak' was quintessential Parrish.
The ensuing art print of this painting is thought to be
the most widely sold art print in history.
From 1931 onwards Parrish painted landscapes for a calendar
series as well as for greeting cards and playing cards.
In 1960 Parrish stopped painting altogether after Susan
Lewin, his model and companion of 55 years, married at the
age of 70. Maxfield Parrish quietly passed away at the age
of 95 at "The Oaks" in 1966. He has lived to see his work
continually recognized and revered by successive generations
throughout the world.