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The dreamscapes of Maxfield Parrish

How the popular artist flattered his country with an image of itself as an American Aracadia. 

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In 1964, Maxfield Parrish, then aged 94, told the New York Times, “I don’t know what people find or like in me, I’m hopelessly commonplace… Current appreciation of my work is a bit highbrow, I’ve always considered myself a popular artist.” Things are very different now and Parrish is taken at his own estimation, or below it; the word “highbrow” is never attached to him, but “kitsch” inevitably is.

Parrish (1870-1966) was once the best known and most popular artist in the US. His colour-saturated dreamscapes, peopled by androgynous nymphs and cherubs, depicted a timeless American Arcadia: in Europe painters such as Cézanne, Puvis de Chavannes and Matisse painted classical realms of “luxe, calme et volupté” and it was Parrish who transposed them to the hills and vales of New Hampshire and Vermont. The American public lapped up this land of make-believe and its flattering self- image, just as it relished Disney’s Parrish spin-off, Fantasia (1940). In 1936, Time magazine claimed that the three most popular print artists in the world “are Van Gogh, Cézanne and Maxfield Parrish” and this was not hyperbole: his 1922 painting Daybreak became the most popular print of the 20th century, hanging in one in four American homes. The hokey magazine illustrator Norman Rockwell said simply: “He was one of my gods.”

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Parrish, whose work spanned the worlds of illustration and art at a time when the border was porous, was successful from the off. His stated aspiration was to be “a businessman with a brush” and he succeeded spectacularly. He could number many of the great upper-echelon American families as clients – the Astors, Vanderbilts, Hearsts and Whitneys – and by 1910, at the age of 40, he was earning $100,000 a year, when $2,000 would buy you a house.

Parrish was born to an artistic Quaker family in Pennsylvania and in his teens visited England, Italy and France with them, ingesting old art as he went, before starting his artist’s training. By then he had already produced work for Harper’s Bazaar and was shortly to illustrate Mother Goose in Prose, the first children’s book by L Frank Baum, published a few years before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As well as book illustration, Parrish forged a lucrative career as a calendar designer for, among others, the electric light company Edison Mazda. From 1918 to 1934 he was contracted to produce an annual illustration for the company, and customers would treat them as collectors’ items, tearing off the months but keeping the Parrish image. This picture, The Glen of 1938, was one such image, made for a calendar given away by the Frank Tennille Furniture Company of Montgomery, Alabama.

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Parrish’s rise coincided with advances in colour printing technology that allowed his hyper-realism and electric, jewel colours to be reproduced with a fidelity that was not previously possible. His favoured shade, a backlit lapis blue, became known as “Parrish blue” and was even referenced by F Scott Fitzgerald (“as blue as a Parrish sky”). For his models, whom he would photograph for later miniaturist depiction, he used his wife Lydia – who was an early documenter of African-American slave songs – his four children and, for 55 years from 1905 to 1960, a woman called Susan Lewin who was also his long-term companion and probable lover. They denied a romantic relationship but lived together in his studio at Plainfield in New Hampshire, and when Lydia died Parrish dragged his feet in marrying Lewin, so she turned to someone else instead, a gambit that shocked the 90-year-old artist into giving up painting altogether.

By then Parrish had been painting only landscapes for decades. In 1931, he had tired of his idylls: “I’m done with girls on rocks!” he said, “I’ve painted them for 13 years and I could paint them and sell them for 13 more. That’s the peril of the commercial art game. It tempts a man to repeat himself. It’s an awful thing to get to be a rubber stamp.” The limpid youths disappeared from his work and trees, hills, rocks and river valleys took their places in the foreground.

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With them he conjured up a world of permanent sunrise and sunset, illuminated by light that has been split through a prism into its full spectrum: in Parrishland mere sunlight is too quotidian. There was, however, more to him than just visual tricks and an ability to bring the suggestible emotions into play. Parrish did not believe that true nature could be painted out of doors – sketches, yes, but they had to be worked up in the studio. But artificiality was to be found in nature itself. In 1950 he wrote to a friend that: “There seem to be magic days once in a while, with some rare quality of light that hold a body spellbound: in sub-zero weather there will be a burst of unbelievable colour when the mountain turns a deep purple, a thing it refuses to do in summer.” The problem of such passing effects, which he approached as an artist not as an illustrator, was how “to render in paint an experience”, and he found a way to do it.

Parrish inadvertently identified his particular gift when taking aim at “Modernistic-Abstractionist-Art”, which, he said “consists of 75 per cent explanation and 25 per cent God knows what!” He had found a way to paint the God knows what. 

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning