American illustrator Maxfield Parrish lived a long, successful, productive life. His paintings and illustrations, highly popular almost from the beginning of his career, still attract avid collectors.
Born Frederic Parrish in Philadelphia in 1870, he later adopted his grandmother’s maiden name- Maxfield- as his middle name and used it in his profession.
Parrish’s parents had great influence on him, encouraging him in his artistic endeavors. At age 14 he went with them to Europe where for 2 years they toured England, France, and Italy. Returning to the United States, he entered Haverford College, planning a career in architecture. For years later, he turned to art, entering the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
His first major commission in 1894 was a mural (Old King Cole) for the Mask & Wig Club at the University of Pennsylvania. In short order, he was in demand as a book illustrator. Some of the early books for which illustrations were commissioned are:
Knickerbocker’s History of New York, 1898-99. Nine drawings were commissioned.
Mother Goose in Prose, 1897. 15 illustrations. This book was written by L. Frank Baum who later rose to fame for the Wizard of Oz books.
Dream Days, 1900-01 (a sequel to The Golden Age). 10 illustrations. During this period Parrish contracted tuberculosis, so publication was delayed until 1902. The Golden Age was reissued as a companion novel to Dream Days, both books having identical bindings designed by Parrish and illustrations reproduced by photogravure.
Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field, 1904. Parrish was commissioned to paint his interpretation of 5 of Field’s poems. He was also to provide 3 additional paintings plus cover design, endpapers and title page for the proposed book. This was the first book in which Parrish paintings were reproduced in full color. The most familiar and popular one was “The Dickey Bird”.
Arabian Nights, 1904-1910. Parrish was under exclusive contract with Colliers Magazine.
The Knave of Hearts, 1925. 26 paintings commissioned.
Other works of Parrish consisted of posters, magazine covers, murals and advertisements. Over a period of years from 1895 to 1923 he designed covers for various publishers such as Harper’s, Colliers, Life, Scribners’ Century, St. Nickolas, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Success, and Hearst’s. Again, in the 1930’s he designed a few more covers for Colliers and Ladies Home Journal.
At the beinning of his career in 1903, Parrish won first prize in a contest for prominent illustratriors, sponsored by Ladies Home Journal (Jessie Wilcox Smith and Harrison Fisher also won prizes). Besides winning $1000, his painting, “Air Castles,” was printed in full color in the September 1904 issue. Art prins of “Air Castles” were offered to readers for 10 cents.
Some of Parrish’s illustrations recognizeable today first appeared on the cover of these magazines:
“Land of Make Believe,” Scribners, August 1912.
“School Days,” Colliers, September 1908.
“King with Two Sentries,” Colliers, November 1913.
“Harvest,” Colliers, September 1905.
“The Lantern Bearers,” Colliers, December 1910.
“The Story of the Snow Drop,” Hearsts, August 1912.
“The Idiot,” Colliers, September 1910.
“The Frog Prince,” Hearsts, July 1912.
“Jack Frost,” Colliers, October 1936 (Parrish’s daughter, Jean, was given credit for this idea).
“Reveries,” Hearst’s, May 1913.
Parrish’s success as a commercial illustrator extended to advertising as well. Some of his well known advertisements are “Spirit of Transportation,” commissioned by Clark Equimpent Company in 1920; “Spirit of the Night,” a 1919 calendar for General Electric Mazda Lamps. Other calendars for Mazda were “Prometheus,” 1920 and “Ecstacy,” 1930. “Rubaiyat” and “Garden of Allah” were decoration for gift boxes for Crane’s Chocolates in 1916 and 1918.
The most successful of Parrish’s Art Prints, “Daybreak,” was published in 1922 and became the decorating sensation of the decade. The royalty on sales of this print alone amounted to $95,000, and the demand continued into 1925 when cheap imitations began to flood the market.
A New York gallery built on the success of “Daybreak” by exhibiting 50 of Parrish’s original paintings. Twenty eight paintings sold, “Daybreak” and “Romance” bringing $10,000 each.
Parrish regularly painted from photographs, which he took. He used black and white glass plates to transfer form and light, and added color of his own invention. One of his examples of the photography was the print “Canyon,” consisting of two composites. Using his faithful model Kitty Owne (also the reclining figure in “Daybreak”), he superimposed her figure on a background of trees. This particular painting was to be used for the Easter 1923 issue of Life Magazine. Upon receiving the original painting back from Life, Parrish made major changes in the background, suing steep walls of a rocky gorge and thus creating the Canyon. The House of Art then reproduced the painting as an art print.
Parrish continued working in his unique colors, his dreamy unreality and distinctive elegant style until 1962; his famous, unusual shade of blue became his trademark. A few years later in 1966 he died at the age of 95. His work is still being sought by generations of new collectors.
Coy Ludwig has written a book on Maxfield Parrish and his work, published
by Watson-Guptill Publications, New York in 1973. This richly illustrated
work was recently reprinted and is available in many bookstores.-Donna
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