Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)

Maxfield Parrish was a household name during the early part of the twentieth century, and today, he stands beside Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth as a triumvirate of American artists that delighted generations with their creations. These men mark the high point in the golden age of American illustration, and through Parrish’s imaginative work, he raised himself to the regal title “Master of Make-Believe.”[1] His famous painting Daybreak (handled by Vose Galleries) is among the most reproduced images of art history, and by the height of Parrish’s career, a replica of this piece was purportedly in one out of every four homes in America.

[1] Christian Brinton, “Master of Make-Believe,” Century Magazine, 1912.

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Frederick Parrish (he would later use the surname Maxfield as first a middle name and then a professional name) was the son of well-known painter and printmaker Stephen Parrish (1846-1938), and he benefited greatly from his father’s capable tutelage at an early age. He was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later in Dublin, New Hampshire, and traveled often with his father on local painting expeditions. As Maxfield grew older, the pair ventured as far as Massachusetts’ Cape Ann and even to Europe to try their hands at the varied landscapes.

In 1888, Maxfield entered Haverford College to study architecture, but he spent hours of time drawing whimsical subjects, even accepting commissions for hand-drafted posters and booklet covers. He had uncovered his true passion for art by his junior year, and so entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and began his studies under Robert Vonnoh and Thomas Anshutz in 1892. A dedicated student, Maxfield also attended illustration classes at the nearby Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, and was encouraged by his teacher, Howard Pyle, to attempt commercial work. Within just two years of study, Maxfield was accepting local commissions for illustrations, and in 1895, he produced his first cover design for Harper & Brothers, publishers of Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly, and Harper’s Young People. Parrish’s career as an illustrator gained momentous speed, and he was soon illustrating covers, frontispieces, short stories and advertisements for other major publications such as, Scribner’s, Life, Hearst, and Ladies Home Journal. He was at his most productive period between 1901 and 1925, when he created such famous book illustrations as Knave of Hearts and Arabian Nights and earned his reputation as one of America’s foremost illustrators.

Parrish’s work captured whimsical moments, idyllic vistas and fluidly-draped youths; his backdrop was most frequently his beloved home, “The Oaks,” in Plainfield, New Hampshire. From 1936 until his death in 1966, Parrish nearly exclusively produced landscapes, painting over one hundred views of New Hampshire, where he had resided since 1898. He built “The Oaks” over a series of progressive additions, creating in the end a twenty-room home with a fifteen-room studio, resplendent with Roman columns and sunken gardens.

Although he lived a reclusive life, Parrish’s name was familiar to millions of Americans, and by 1925, he had achieved not just great fame, but also fortune. Remarkably, Parrish’s status as one of the first American artists to consciously create illustrations for an expansive public audience caused him to be largely overlooked by art historians. They classified him not as a fine artist, but as a “popular artist,”[1] disregarding the fact that Parrish had obtained full membership to the National Academy of Design. Interest in his work slowly grew throughout the 1970s, however, after Lawrence Alloway shed light on his talents and Vose Galleries hosted a major Maxfield Parrish exhibition in 1977. Surprisingly, it took until the year 2000 for a revered fine art institution to host a major critical survey of Parrish’s career; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts organized the ground-breaking exhibition Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966 in April of 2000.

References: Dictionary of American Illustration (1997); Coy Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish (New York: Watson Guptill, 1976) and Maxfield Parrish, A Retrospect (Springfield, MA: The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, 1966).Alma Gilbert, Maxfield Parrish, The Masterworks (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1992).; Alma Gilbert-Smith “Maxfield Parrish, Master of Make-Believe,” American Art Review, Vol. XVIII No. 1, 2005; Christian Brinton, “A Master of Make-Believe,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, July 1912.

[1] Sylvia Young, “Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966,” American Art Review, Vol. XII No. 2, 2000, p.134.

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