As children, none of us can forget the first instance of seeing an art print or a book illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. Everyone recognizes the magical world woven by Parrish, usually with the color lapiz lazuli in its purest form. His signature use of this color was so powerful that a certain cobalt blue became known as "Parrish Blue". His idealized images with figures of feminine pulchritude adorned in classical gowns with backgrounds of electric violets, radiant reds and rich glowing earth tone pigments, created an idyllic world indeed. Other images had scenes embellished with billowing clouds in a fairy tale ambience of maidens and knights lying under porticoes and these were equally harmonic, idealistic, and beloved.
Books illustrated by Parrish no longer belonged to their authors, but rather they became "Parrish" books, just as a generic color became "Parrish Blue". As a result of this ability to create such a sublime splendor, Maxfield Parrish became unquestionably the most successful and best-known American illustrator of the early part of the twentieth century.
As adults, we long still for such visual images to materialize and we harbor some childish guilt within us for not being able to seek out his scenes of make-believe. We all thought that his paintings were of real places and that these extraordinary people and fire-breathing dragons actually lived and coexisted peacefully. Their images were too realistic not to be believed. Their stark beauty and superb execution denied us any ability to question their existence. They were photographic, mechanical and above all, technically accurate.
His lush coloristic effects with extraordinary detail and academic perfection were first broadly recognized by the American public in the 1920’s and they rewarded him with an unrivaled national popularity. In 1925, one out of every four households in the United States had a copy of one of his art prints hanging on their walls. In a survey taken at that time by a group of art print publishers, findings showed that the three favorite artists were Cezanne, van Gogh, and Parrish.
For 58 years he was married to Lydia, a pretty art instructor who later became one of the first documentors of African-American slave songs of the Deep South. Yet, he also had a beautiful model/mistress and one of the most romantic relationships of the century. For over 55 years, the lovely Susan Lewin was his constant companion.
In 1960, a few years after the death of Lydia, when he did not marry Susan, she retaliated by marrying a childhood friend. Although 90 years old, Parrish was still painting actively, but upon learning of Susan’s marriage, he never painted again.
His work influenced that of other notable artists: Vasarely, with images that bordered on Op Art; Andy Warhol, who collected his work, with repetitive, reproducible Pop Art prototypes; and the great American illustrator, Norman Rockwell, who said that Parrish was his idol. The Realist, Photorealist and Superrealist movements owe their directions to his legacy. He was revered, but nearly forgotten, until his rediscovery when he was in his 90’s in 1964.
His life was rich and full and he did not suffer as many other artists have with tortured lives. On the other hand, strange mysteries persisted throughout his life: a father whom he emulated had a broken marriage (unheard of) in the 1890’s, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and a son who later committed suicide. He had an inordinate love for the business side of his craft, but he rarely spent any money, and it all added up to a movie script life. In fact, he was a Hollywood-handsome man who had stashed his incredible talented self away in the remote hills of New Hampshire and once there, created a make-believe world of his own and never left.
However, the fact remains that very few of Parrish's original paintings have been seen by contemporary art audiences. The most recent major exhibitions of his work were held in 1961 at a Bennington College exhibit, then in 1964 at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York, again in 1974 at the Brandywine River Museum in a tribute exhibition entitled "Master of Make Believe". The most recent comprehensive exhibition was in 1989 at the American Illustrators Gallery, the first New York exhibition since his death at the ripe and enviable old age of 95.
After a long and self-satisfied life, this striking and earnest gentleman died on March 30, 1966, at his home and studio, "The Oaks", in Plainfield, New Hampshire. His artistic career had ended some six years earlier.
Laurence S. Cutler, AIA RIBA*
*Co-author with Judy Goffman of Maxfield Parrish
Published by Crescent Books and distributed by Outlet Books of Random House, 1993