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Maxfield Parrish (July 25, 1870 – March 30, 1966) was an American painter and illustrator active in the first half of the twentieth century. He is known for his distinctive saturated hues and idealized neo-classical imagery.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he began drawing for his own amusement as a child. His given name was Frederick Parrish but he later adopted the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Maxfield, as his middle name, and later as his professional name. His father was an engraver and landscape artist, and young Parrish's parents encouraged his talent. He attended Haverford College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He entered into an artistic career that lasted for more than half a century, and which helped shape the Golden Age of illustration and the future of American visual arts.
He lived his entire life at his New Hampshire home/studio at The Oaks with his wife, who died in 1953, and his mistress and model, Sue Lewin, who survived his death in 1966 at age 95. He was by all accounts a charming and intelligent man whose writings add a great deal to the text in Ludwig's book.
Launched by a commission to illustrate L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose in 1897, his repertoire included many prestigious projects including Eugene Field's Poems of Childhood (including 8 color plates) (1904) (see illustration) and such traditional works as Arabian Nights (including 12 color plates) (1909). Books illustrated by Parrish, in addition to those that include reproductions of Parrish's work—including A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales (including 10 color plates) (1910), The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics (including 8 color plates) (1911) and The Knave of Hearts (including 23 color images) (1925) - are highly sought-after collectors items.
He had numerous commissions from popular magazines in the 1910s and 1920s including Hearst's, Colliers, and Life. He was also a favorite of advertisers, including Wanamaker's, Edison-Mazda Lamps, Fisk Tires, Colgate and Oneida Cutlery. In the 1920s, Parrish turned away from illustration and concentrated on painting for its own sake. Androgynous nudes in fantastical settings were a recurring theme. He continued in this vein for several years, living comfortably off the royalties brought in by the production of posters and calendars featuring his works. An early favorite model was Kitty Owen in the 1920s. Later another favorite, Susan Lewin, posed for many works, and was employed in the Parrish household for many years. Parrish himself posed for many images that featured male—and occasionally female—figures (see Potpourri, 1905).
In 1931, he declared to the Associated Press, "I'm done with girls on rocks", and opted instead to focus on landscapes. Though never as popular as his earlier works, he profited from them. He would often build models of the landscapes he wished to paint, using various lighting setups before deciding on a preferred view, which he would photograph as a basis for the painting (see for example, The Millpond). He lived in Plainfield, New Hampshire, near the Cornish Art Colony, and painted until he was 91 years old. He was also an avid machinist.
Parrish's art features dazzlingly luminous colors; the color Parrish blue was named in acknowledgement. He achieved the results by means of a technique called glazing where bright layers of oil color separated by varnish are applied alternately over a base rendering (Parrish usually used a blue and white monochromatic underpainting).
He would build up the depth in his paintings by photographing, enlarging, projecting and tracing half- or full-size objects or figures. Parrish then cut out and placed the images on his canvas, covering them with thick, but clear, layers of glaze. The result is realism of elegiac vivacity. His work achieves a unique three-dimensional appearance, which does not translate well to coffee table books.
Parrish devised many innovative techniques which no other major artist has successfully copied. A technique which Parrish used frequently involved creating a large piece of cloth with a geometric pattern in stark black-and-white (such as alternate black and white squares, or a regular pattern of black circles on a white background). A human model (often Parrish himself) would then pose for a photograph with this cloth draped naturally on his or her body in a manner which intentionally distorted the pattern. Parrish would develop a transparency of the photo, then project this onto the canvas of his current work in progress. Using black graphite on the white canvas, Parrish would painstakingly trace and fill in all the black portions of the projected photo. The result was astonishing: in the finished painting, a human figure would be seen wearing a distinctive geometrically-patterned cloth which draped realistically and accurately.
Parrish's work defies categorization since he was part of no traditional movement or school, and developed an original and individual style. However, his work has been highly influential.
Kurt Vonnegut's work The Sirens of Titan alludes to "Maxfield Parrish light" coming from treetops.
Among recent homages was the 1995 music video "You Are Not Alone", featuring Michael Jackson and his then wife Lisa Marie Presley, in which they appear semi-nude in emulation of Parrish's most famous work, Daybreak 1922.
The Irish musician Enya has been inspired by the works of Parrish. The cover art of her 1995 album The Memory of Trees is based on his painting The Young King of the Black Isles . A number of her music videos include Parrish imagery including Caribbean Blue.
The Elton John album Caribou has a Parrish background.
The poster for The Princess Bride was inspired by one his works.
The Moody Blues album The Present uses a variation of Daybreak for its cover.
In 1984, Dali's Car, the British New Wave project of Peter Murphy and Mick Karn, used the Parrish painting Daybreak as the cover art of their only album, The Waking Hour.
The cover of the 1985 Bloom County cartoon collection Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things comprises elements of Daybreak, The Garden of Allah, and The Lute Players.
In 2001, Parrish was featured in a U.S. Post Office commemorative stamp series honoring American illustrators, including Rockwell Kent, Norman Rockwell, Frederic Remington, and 16 others.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, along with many other museums, has samples of his work. The San Diego Museum of Art toured a collection of his work in 2005. The National Museum of American Illustration claims the largest body of his oeuvre in any collection, with sixty-nine works by Parrish. Some of his works are located at the Hood Art Museum (Hanover, New Hampshire) and the Cornish Colony Art Museum (Windsor, Vermont).
His second son Maxfield Parrish Jr. is known for his important contribution to the development of the first self-developing camera at Dr. Edwin H. Land's Polaroid Corporation. He also collaborated with his cousin, inventor John Haven Emerson, in an important patent lawsuit involving iron lungs.
Maxfield Parrish's third son, Stephen Parrish II, worked for Pan American as a mechanic. His daughter Jean Parrish was a noted artist in her own right. She died in 2004. With her death, there are no living children of Maxfield Parrish. There are seven grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and several great great grandchildren as of 2007.
Maxfield Parrish, 1956
July 25, 1870(1870-07-25) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
March 30, 1966 (aged 95)
The Dinky Bird, by Maxfield Parrish, an illustration from Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field, 1904. This work exemplifies Parrish's characteristic use of androgynous figures.
A fantastical Parrish illustration titled Cadmus Sowing the Dragon's Teeth, which appeared in Collier's in 1908 and A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Princess Parizade Bringing Home the Singing Tree from Arabian Nights, 1906, oil on paper.