Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966 |
(an exhibit at the Pennsylvania
Academy of the Fine Arts,
Philadelphia, June-September 1999)
Others could replicate the filmy figures that populate his scenes.
N.C. Wyeth could create similar strong, bold, striding figures of children's book illustrations and fantastical allegories. And other, more satirical artists, could capture the whimsy of his sketches. But only Maxfield Parrish could paint the blues. That radiant, cobalt-hued sky, the deeper shadows shading toward purple, the lavenders of his landscape in "Daybreak," still are his signature more than 30 years after his death.
A member of the Brandywine School, which also included Wyeth's son, Andrew, and Howard Pyle, Parrish was intimately familiar with the landscapes of eastern Pennsylvania which others, especially the Wyeths, parlayed into their own trademark. But Parrish's illustrations, reproduced during his lifetime in millions of magazines and books, on millions of seed packets and boxes of chocolates, tended to be more romantic, filled with luminescent light and symmetry.
"Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966," a critical review of Parrish's work hosted by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and organized by The American Federation of Arts, features nearly 200 paintings, sketches, drawings, photographs and objects to give an overview of a 70-year career that spanned the 19th and 20th centuries with nearly unparalleled popularity.
Born Frederick Parrish -- he would later take his grandmother's maiden name as his own -- to a wealthy family, Parrish was exposed to the arts from childhood. A member of Haverford College's Class of 1892, he left college after his junior year because he decided to study art instead of architecture. He seems to have been a typical student, with one exception: Not every college student sees his chemistry lab notebook doodles lovingly preserved. Haverford has Parrish's meanderings and sketches of elves and Bunsen burners on exhibit.
He later enrolled at PAFA, where he studied under Pyle and decided on his career. It was a case of perfect timing. The rise of publications needing talented illustrators coincided with his love of fantasy and naturalism.
Commissions flowed to him. His appreciation of superb draftsmanship, inherited from his mother's side, combined with the creative sense he credited to his artist father, became his hallmark. But, even more importantly, Parrish had an appreciation of what the 20th century's mass audience would mean. Murals, like "Old King Cole" for Penn's Mask and Wig Club (which would sell in 1996 for $662,500), painted when he was just 25, and illustrations at $2,000 each, meant a lucrative career.
His pictures were mass-produced in advertisements and on magazine covers. It's estimated that, by the 1920s, one in four American homes had a Parrish print hanging on the wall.
What may have been his most glowing moment came in 1922, with "Daybreak." It has the symmetry, the classical elements in its columns, two "Parrish figures" (his daughter, Jean, and Kitty Owen, daughter of William Jennings Bryan), his awe-inspiring landscape background and the glowing colors -- including, of course, blue. Forget The Last Supper, Mona Lisa and The Garden at Giverny. "Daybreak" still is believed to be the most-reproduced print in history.
By 1936, Time magazine would rank Parrish as one of the world's three most popular artists. Only Cezanne and van Gogh approached his notoriety.
By the time he died in New Hampshire at age 96, Parrish had been wildly famous, semi-retired and discovered all over again. PAFA's show will trace the development and re-emergence of an artist who, arguably, is the 20th century's biggest mass audience powerhouse.
"Only God can make a tree," Parrish was supposedly reminded years ago.
"True enough," he is said to have replied. "But I'd like to see Him paint one."
[ by Jen Kopf ]