Maxfield Parrish, born Frederick Parrish, was one of the greatest illustrators of his time, ranking among top artists Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. From his day of birth July 25th 1870 in Philadelphia, to the day he died in 1966 at the age of 95 in Cornish, Parrish lived a full wealthy life without many disappointments or sorrows in what was called the Golden Age of Illustration. Parrish’s works will be forever remembered as enchanting realistic paintings of fantasy and romance that hung in the homes of 1 out of 4 Americans in the 1920’s.
Many factors contribute to this artist’s success. One of the most important factors was his use of Dynamic Symmetry, a design theory based on geometric harmony and the formula a/b=(a+b)/a known as the Golden Section. In order to achieve this composition, Parrish would arrange cutouts of costumed models on to a canvas board, or sometimes project the photos onto a wall.
His father, Stephan Parrish, also played a significant role in his success. Being the first artist in the family, Stephan taught his son many of the basic fundamentals of art, such as drawing and etching. This and other artists of the time got Maxfield interested in the laborious processes of painting with egg tempera, varnish and applying single coatings of color, one layer at a time.
Much of Parrish’s work was inspired by his role model at the time, Lord Leighton.
Maxfield began his career as an architect but because of the many restraints on the creative mind and his inability to endure the Beaux-Arts training, he dropped out. After encouragement from his father and some duration at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, Parrish completed his first painting. This began his practice of using one-word titles of great imagery. His first was entitled ‘Moonrise.’ After followed many more including Hilltop, Stars, Enchantment, Dreaming, Contentment, Morning and by far his most famous piece, Daybreak.
Parrish would go into great detail in putting together and researching a piece. His housekeeper/companion/model, Susan Lewin, would make her own costumes from historical research while he produced stage sets and took photographs for later painting. The artist was also very precise in the making of detailed frames, decorating crates and designing labels for his artwork to be shipped.
Another determining factor that plays into recognizing Parrish’s unique and fantastic style is his use of a straight, brilliant blue, often known today as Parrish Blue.
After receiving his first paid commission, a mural of Old King Cole for the Mask and Wig Club, Maxfield Parrish’s career soared. The years after became a blur of commissions for magazine covers, murals, and book illustrations. He married a young art teacher by the name of Lydia Austin in 1895.
Later events in Parrish’s life include the devastating separation of his parents, his move to his final home in Cornish, and the designing and building of their home in Cornish, which later expanded to a overwhelming 20 rooms and a 9 room detached studio. This was named “The Oaks” for the big Oak trees outside their home that he so often painted.
Many will describe his works to have a pre-Raphaelite feeling with interchangeable characteristics.
“He can be modern, medieval, or classic,” said a German-born critic.
Another factor that helped refine his artwork was his excursion to Castle Creek in Hot Springs, Arizona, a treatment recommended by his doctor as a cure for tuberculosis. There he found great interest in the brilliant reds and yellows of the Southwest desert, furthering the brilliance of color in his painting.
After hiring help in 1905, Parrish became involved with his housekeeper and asked her to model for him. Susan Lewin was used in such famous works as Sleeping Beauty and Daybreak. His daughter Jean was also used in Daybreak and other paintings where younger models were needed.
During this time till 1935 Parrish kept busy with a magazine contract with Collier’s and many commissions that eventually reached the price of $2000 dollars per illustration. By the time Parrish was illustrating displays, billboards, protein layouts, package designs, and product endorsements for such products as Colgate, Jell-O, Fish tires, Swifts Premium Ham, Hires Root Beer and Djer-Kiss Cosmetics, Parrish had become a household name.
Yet another important skill that determined this artist’s success was his ability to handle business. This ability gave him the nickname “Businessman with a brush.” In handling a commission, he would paint the picture needed and sell one-time only rights to the client, later sell reprint rights for an ongoing percentage fee, and then sell the actual painting to whoever the collector/admirer might be.
Parrish’s most successful print, Daybreak, eventually totaled him more than $100,000 for the prints and $10,000 for the original painting.
In his elder years he made the decision to only paint landscapes until 1960 when arthritis struck him and prevented him from painting again.
He died peacefully, wealthy, and happily at his home, “The Oaks.” I believe Maxfield Parrish’s surreal illustrations will continue to inspire the imaginations of many.