Maxfield Parrish (July 25, 1870 – March 30, 1966) was an American painter and illustrator. During his career, he produced almost 900 pieces of art including calendars, greeting cards, and magazine covers, children’s book illustrations, poster work and even advertising work. However, advertising art became more of a burden to Maxfield who disliked the “men with good intentions” who were a constant distraction. He preferred to make his pictures for reproductions as calendars and art prints.
He illustrated children's books such as Arabian Nights, Tanglewood Tales and Knave of Hearts. He worked on advertisements for companies such as Edison-Mazda, Jell-O, General Electric, and Fisk Tires. He painted scenery for Broadway and local plays and illustrated Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens.
Art prints of his works started to become available round about 1904 but by the 1920’s the demand was so great that The House of Art in New York began to commission his works specifically for reproduction in great volume. His calendars for the Edison Mazda Lamp division of the General Electric Company, the one advertising client with whom he had a lasting relationship, were so popular that over a million reproductions were sold each year and became his primary artform for many years. His relationship with The House of Art lasted until 1928 and he painted his last Edison Mazda calendar in 1934. During Maxfield’s last 30 years as an artist, he painted landscapes exclusively.
Alma Gilbert in Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966
In 1925 it was estimated that one out of every five American homes had a Parrish print on its wall. He was, and still remains the most reproduced artist in the history of art.
His career spanned fifty years and was wildly successful both in terms of the number of paintings and prints he sold and financially: his painting Daybreak (1922) is, according to Wikipedia, ‘the most popular art print of the 20th century’. But he was not driven by money or a craving for success, these were entirely incidental.
Parrish simply appeared to live on a different plane of existence to everyone else and ached to show us what that plane looked like. He was a painter of Light, and his paintings are mystical, spiritual, uplifting and hyper real. Is this Reality?
Maxfield Parrish - The Doctrine of Divine Light
Maxfield Parrish captures a mood in his paintings that feels supernatural and very real and tangible at the same time.
It is as if he’s able to paint a plane of existence we can all somehow recollect but very rarely perceive
This world of Light can revive a forgotten time and make you drunk with delight…………. Parrish said that capturing a mood in nature is more important than what you are painting. And the mood consists of “those qualities that delight us in nature – the sense of freedom, pure air and light, the magic of distance, and the saturated beauty of color.”
1975 Hall of Fame Inductee: Maxfield Parrish
Maxfield Parrish’s glowing landscapes and beautiful visions of sunlight and moonlight, his figures radiating the simple, almost angelic, postures of life were the trademark of an artist at the top of the illustration field at the turn of the century.
His larger-than-life villains and smaller-than-life figures in landscapes flowed freely from the vivid imagination of a simple man, straightforward in his outlook on life.
To capture the single sunbeam which would reflect the beauty of the world as he saw it and to pass that beam through a prism of color was his style. He was alone in its mastery and it earned him the respect and recognition of the art world and the viewing public across the globe.
Maxfield Parrish was born Frederick Parrish but he later adopted the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Maxfield, as his middle and professional name. Parrish was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to painter and etcher Stephen Parrish and Elizabeth Bancroft. Both were Quakers and he was brought up as a Quaker, in Quaker society. This is very evident in his humility and non materialistic stance
"Bit of a Come-Back Puzzles Parrish" in The New York Times (3 June 1964)
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.
He was scrupulously honest, and fair with his clients, and we can see that the ethical and moral foundation on which Parrish based his whole life was Quakerism.
How Maxfield Parrish Fulfilled a Warranty" by Seth W. Mattingly in Valley News [Lebanon, NH] (10 February 1982), p.2.
Parrish turned down an offer of payment from Irénée du Pont in 1954 for a second mural after one he had finished in 1933 began to deteriorate because of improperly dried paint; he said “There is an implied warranty that a commissioned work should last a lifetime. There is to be no charge”.
However, his is a mystic’s view of the world. And what he really saw and tried to capture was from a much older golden time, when the world was enchanted.....
'The fate of our times is characterised by the rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world'
but it needn't be
For more than 99% of human history, the world was enchanted and man saw himself as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche.
It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well.
The only hope lies in a re-enchantment of the world
He was encouraged to draw by his parents and between 1884 and 1886, his parents took him to Europe, where he toured England, Italy, and France, and was exposed to European art and architecture. He instinctively picked up the symbolism in European art. The Dinky Bird, an illustration from Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field (1904), for example, shows his use of nakedness and of androgyny, as well as the idea of the swing and the palace.
Summary of Life
After his tour of Europe, Parrish studied art in Paris, returning to study architecture at Haverford College for two years beginning in 1888. Parrish suffered from tuberculosis for a time in 1890, but while sick, he discovered how to mix oils and glazes to create the vibrant colours he is now known for.
He went on to study art from 1892 to 1895 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After graduating from the program, Parrish went to Annisquam, Massachusetts where he and his father shared a painting studio. Maxfield studied later at his father’s home, “Northcote,” built in 1893, in the Connecticut River Valley town of Cornish, N.H.
Afterwards, with his father's encouragement, he attended the Drexel Institute of Art, Science & Industry. Maxfield’s wife, the former Lydia Ambler Austin was an art instructor he met while auditing a class of Howard Pyle’s at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. The couple was married on June 1, 1895. He then began his long and productive commercial career in Philadelphia where he occupied studios until 1898.
However, his need for uninterrupted work time and his love of the Connecticut Valley countryside prompted him to build a home, “The Oaks” in Windsor, Bt. On the New Hampshire border across the valley from his father’s home in Cornish. He and Lydia built a home, art studio and machine shop at The Oaks, where they raised four children together - John, Maxfield, Jr., Stephen and Jean.
The couple became a part of the famous Cornish Colony of artists and intellectuals. The home, where the artist lived until his death in 1966, was surrounded by beautiful countryside, which became the inspiration for much of his work. In the winter it was often snowbound and Maxfield flourished in this atmosphere of seclusion for his work and an open social life amongst his friends.
Not much emphasis is placed in the descriptions of Parrish’s work on how inventive and innovative he was. Parrish made use of every new technological advance to help his technique. He rarely painted from life, for example, or sketched, but used photography and a projector instead. He had his own dark room and took his own photos of models, both human and those made of wood in his workshop. He fashioned his own tools in his machine shop at The Oaks. He also made costumes, cutouts and miniature structures for his landscape sets.
He would often build scale models of the imaginary landscapes he wished to paint, using various lighting setups before deciding on a preferred view, which he would photograph as a basis for the painting (see for example, The Millpond).
The wide-scale use of printing for advertisement, opened new doors, improvements in printing technology meant he could use several colours and larger font styles, as well as lithograph.
Letter to Gertrude Whitney (8 April 1914)
Thank you for allowing me to use colors as rich and deep as you please. I had always wanted to do so, yet was never allowed because of the color capabilities of our lithographers today. Now that I have done it, I don't think I'll ever go back.
The critics of course attempted to ridicule his art, as being too ‘popular’, for Parrish's art enchanted millions.
But surely that is the point of art – to enchant millions, - a painting locked away in a warehouse in some twisted notion it will increase in value is enchanting no one. And that is what Parrish wanted to do, enchant, inspire, bring joy. And so he was happy his work was used for greeting cards, magazine covers, prints and calendars and that they hung in places such as dormitories, living rooms, dens, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, department stores and laundromats.
It is fascinating to note that The Great Depression didn't reduce his popularity – people wanted the escapism offered by his work – and making copies of fine art became more popular during this time. “Parrish's fantasy panoramas, stunning landscapes, ethereal nymphs, mythical animals, marble porticos, castles and moats could be found everywhere”.
Parrish's art is characterized by vibrant colours; the colour Parrish blue was named after him. He achieved such luminous colour through glazing [we have an observation of him describing his techniques - see below]. This process involves applying alternating bright layers of translucent glaze separated by varnish over a base rendering. Parrish usually used a blue and white monochromatic underpainting.
Parrish also used many other innovative techniques in his paintings. He would take pictures of models in black and white geometric prints and project the image onto his works. This technique allowed for his figures to be clothed in geometric patterns, while accurately representing distortion and draping. Parrish would also create his paintings by taking pictures, enlarging, or projecting objects. He would cut these images out and put them onto his canvas.
Later life and Death
From 1900 to 1902, Parrish painted in Saranac Lake, New York, and Castle Hot Springs, Arizona to further recover his health. Then in 1931, Parrish declared to the Associated Press, that he would in future focus on landscapes. By 1935, Parrish exclusively painted landscapes
"Maxfield Parrish Will Discard 'Girl-on-Rock' Idea in Art" Associated Press (27 April 1931)
I'm done with girls on rocks! I've painted them for thirteen years and I could paint them and sell them for thirteen 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. I'm quitting my rut now while I'm still able.
Parrish developed arthritis but despite this painted until he was 91 years old. He accepted his last commission in the late 1950s. By 1960 his arthritis prevented him from painting. His last years were spent in a wheelchair. He died on March 30, 1966 in Plainfield, New Hampshire, at the age of 95.
Letter to F.W Weber (1950); published in New York—Pennsylvania Collector (8 August 1991)
How do ideas come? What a question! If they come of their own accord, they are apt to arrive at the most unexpected time and place. For the most part the place is out of doors, for up in this northern wilderness when nature puts on a show it is an inspiring one. 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 color when the mountain turns a deep purple, a thing it refuses to do in summer. Then comes the hard part: how to plan a picture so as to give to others what has happened to you. To render in paint an experience, to suggest the sense of light and color, air and space, there is no such thing as sitting down outside and trying to make a “portrait” of it. It lasts for only a minute, for one thing, and it isn’t an inspiration that can be copied on the spot...
Coy Ludwig’s Maxfield Parrish - originally published in 1973, and later republished by Schiffer Publishing, remains the authority on the life and works of Parrish. Among the contributions Ludwig made to Parrish scholarship was the continuation of a numbering system for images that Parrish himself began. Parrish started at number one and continued to 520, which he reached in January, 1910. Ludwig continued the system, assigning numbers to previously unnumbered images, and to those created after 1909. Each image received one number, and that number stayed with it no matter where the image was used.
Where to see his paintings
The books he illustrated can still be purchased in addition a number of galleries have his works, for example
- The National Museum of American Illustration claims the largest body of his work in any collection, with sixty-nine works by Parrish.
- The Hood Museum of Art (Hanover, New Hampshire) – has some of his works
- The Cornish Colony Museum (Windsor, Vermont), has works
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a few.
- Museum of narrative art George Lucas has over 370 0f his works
- The Museum of fine arts, San Francisco
Statement to William O. Chessman (27 March 1936); as quoted in Maxfield Parrish by Coy Ludwig (1997)
Modernistic-Abstractionist-Art... consists of 75% explanation and 25% God knows what!
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Parrish, Maxfield - A description by him of his painting technique
- Parrish, Maxfield - Air Castles
- Parrish, Maxfield - Cadmus Sowing the Dragon's teeth 
- Parrish, Maxfield - Canyon 
- Parrish, Maxfield - Daybreak 
- Parrish, Maxfield - Dinkey Bird
- Parrish, Maxfield - Ecstasy 
- Parrish, Maxfield - Garden of Allah
- Parrish, Maxfield - Griselda 
- Parrish, Maxfield - Jason and his teacher
- Parrish, Maxfield - Le Bassin
- Parrish, Maxfield - Misty Morning
- Parrish, Maxfield - Puss in Boots 
- Parrish, Maxfield - Reaching for the Moon 
- Parrish, Maxfield - Sing a Song o' Sixpence
- Parrish, Maxfield - Stars 
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Arabian Nights
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Knave of Hearts
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Lantern Bearers (1908)
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Man in the Moon
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Millpond
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Reluctant Dragon
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Story of Little Boy Blue
- Parrish, Maxfield - The Young King of the Black Isles
- Parrish, Maxfield and Collier's magazine
- Parrish, Maxfield and Fisk tyres
- Parrish, Maxfield and General Electric
- Parrish, Maxfield and Harper's Bazaar
- Parrish, Maxfield and Jell-o
- Parrish, Maxfield and the Red Cross [posters]