It is fitting that Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where so much of our nation’s
history was formed, would be the birthplace of the man who would help form the
Golden Age of Illustration in American history. His art style would influence
realists, surrealists and even pop artists. As a leader in the field of commercial
illustration, Parrish defied the persona of the “starving artist.” His fanciful, lyrical
images carried him to great success, however, in the end, he returned to his roots
and to reality.
Maxfield Parrish began his life as Frederick Parrish on July 25, 1870. He was
an only child, born into an open-minded Quaker family. His father was an
accomplished painter and etcher. His mother came from a family of machinists.
Both parents supported and encouraged his artistic abilities. Because the family was
well-to-do, they were able to travel through Europe, exposing Frederick to classical
architecture and the art of the old masters. They also helped Frederick begin his
formal art studies in Paris. At some point, Frederick decided he would take on his
grandmother’s maiden name of Maxfield by which he would become famous.
In addition to studying in Paris, Maxfield also studied at the Pennsylvania
Academy of Fine Arts and the Drexel Institute. A few of his professors were
Howard Pyle, Robert Vonnon and Thomas Anshutz. It was at Drexel that he met
Lydia Austen, an art instructor who would become his wife. Together they had four
children and built a home which they called The Oaks. This would be the retreat
where Maxfield would create his magical masterpieces along with his mistress and
Susan originally came to live at The Oaks as a housekeeper, but her skills
seemed better suited to inspiring Maxfield’s creativity. Their relationship may have
started innocently; however, at some point it seems to have progressed to become
more personal and intimate. However, after the death of Lydia in 1953, Maxfield
did not marry Susan, and she married another longtime friend. Some believe she
did this out of spite. However, I disagree as she continued to care for Maxfield and
assist him in his studio until his death in 1966. Perhaps, their entire relationship was
innocent, perhaps not. In any regard, they were very close and cared for each other
Maxfield Parrish’s work is known for his androgynous nudes, fairytale
settings, dreamlike landscapes and a dazzling, luminous blue that became known as
“Parrish Blue.” He created the signature color by a process he perfected while
recovering from illness. The process involved layering varnish and pure colors over
a ground of white. He stated that “this varnishing is a craft all by itself and cannot
be too carefully done.” (bpib.com)
It seems that none of his work was “too carefully done.” He was precise and
masterful in his characterizations of both fact and fantasy. He used models for both
his figures and landscapes. Norman Rockwell stated, “When I was in art school, I
admired him. He was one of my gods.” (parrish-house.com) Andy Warhol, one of
the most popular pop artists of the 21st century admired him as well and collected
During his career, Maxfield Parrish was employed by several nationally
recognized magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Life as well as major American
companies like General Electric. He lived comfortably on the royalties made from
selling prints of his artwork on a commercial basis which had never been done
before. In addition, he also illustrated childrens’ books for authors such as Eugene
Field and Frank L. Baum. The commercial success of Maxfield Parrish and his art
opened up new possibilities for future artists and their work, artists like myself who
dream of creating art, producing art and succeeding in the field of commercial art
in the way that Maxfield Parrish so elegantly modeled for us to follow.
When reviewing the work of Mayfield Parrish, there is definitely a
progression in style. I can see from his beginning work in the 1920s to his final
landscapes in the 1960s that he was constantly experimenting and learning and
honing his skills. It is inspiring and encouraging to me that one who was so
accomplished still returned to the basics with each new piece of work that he
In this early illustration from 1897, it seems that
Maxfield Parrish had not yet found his signature style. The
color palette is limited and the composition simple. this may
have been due to the subject matter. The stylized female figure
is seen face forward unlike the figures in his later work. I like
this style very much and it would have been a great style in
itself had Parrish decided to stick with it. However, if he had,
we would have never known the beauty or the real talent of
In Sing a Song of Sixpence painted in 1910, we begin to see what we recognize
as Parrish’s style. This whimsically illustrated nursery rhyme combines architecture
and nature which becomes the standard in Parrish’s work. The beautiful landscape
in the background and colorful figures and forms in the foreground balance the
composition with symmetrical shapes, flat blocks of color and geometric patterns.
Lady Violetta and the Knave (1923) shows us the profile views
of the human forms that become the norm for Parrish’s
paintings. Instead of a landscape background, however,
this scene is set in the interior of a kitchen. The colors are
muted instead of bright and bold. However, there is still an
ethereal quality to the scene, which I assume is achieved
through the technique of applying translucent glazes. I
especially see this in the rich red of the pot on the top of
he stove and the blues in the dishes as well as in the trim on the boy’s clothing. My
favorite part of this piece is the steam coming out of the oven. I am curious to
know if this is the white ground showing through or if this is a white glaze applied
at the end stages of the painting. I prefer to believe that he planned ahead very
carefully and left the white ground layer showing through with only the varnish
layer over it to leave this bright white effect for the steam.
In 1922, Parrish painted one of his best paintings entitled Romance. This is
classic Maxfield Parrish. It has everything that signifies his work: ethereal landscapes, pensive
figures, classical gowns and architecture and the signature indigo blue. The mountains glow
with warmth. The cold snow in the background and the water in the foreground
are illuminated with light. This has to be a result of the layering technique that Parrish perfected.
I think I could stare at this scene for hours and never get tired of looking at it. The reflections and lighting amaze and transfix me. There is so much to see!
In 1925, Maxfield Parrish illustrated the book Knave
of Hearts. Taken from that book is this illustration where
we again see the classic architecture used with a landscape
in the background. The composition is very similar to Sing
a Song of Sixpence. There is bright and bold pattern used in
the foreground. The figures are in profile and action poses.
All of these characteristics are typical of Parrish’s style and
readily identify his work. What is missing are large swathes
of his signature blue. Instead, blue is used in moderation
and a bright violet pulls our attention into the scene.
Stars was painted in 1926 and is one of several girls on
rocks that Parrish painted of which he later lamented
when he grew tired of it. This one in particular
reminds me of the sculpture of The Little Mermaid in
Copenhagen, Denmark. I wonder if he saw this
sculpture or a picture of it at some point and modeled
the painting after it. The way the girl and the rock are
framed surrounded by only water is so similar that it
seems like it can’t be coincidental. In this painting, we
also see the famed
“Parrish Blue” taking
center stage and
complemented by the
orange skin tones of the
Another girl on a rock entitled Ecstasy (1930) was painted as a part of
Parrish’s General Electric contract. This piece was one of the calendar images for
the Edison Mazda Lamp division. In this image,
the Parrish Blue takes over the background and
contrasts with the orange of the foreground
mountains and skin tones of the girl. The freedom
she feels standing barefoot on the rocks as the wind
flows through her hair and swirls around her gown
is clearly communicated in this image. I can feel it
swirling around me as I take in the image. One
thing I love about this painting is how interesting it
is even with such a limited palette.
The Dinkey Bird painted in 1904 was one of the artist’s
earlier images of his career, but it contained much of what
made him famous and memorable: the androgynous nude
figure in profile view, the landscape in the background with
the fairytale castle. With this combination, Parrish had
found his magic. This illustration in particular brings the
viewer back into their childhood, feeling the freedom of
flying through the sky, releasing the imagination, and feeling
as if anything is possible.
According to some, The Lantern Bearers is the most iconic and
memorable of all of the Parrish paintings and a representation of what all his
painting is about. I disagree. It has the signature Parrish
Blue. It has the whimsical figures in profile and active
poses. It has the complementary color palette. It has a
strong pyramid composition. However, for me, this
painting is too busy. There are too many figures, too
many orbs and just too much going on overall. I feel like
my eye is always moving and has nowhere to rest. In his
other paintings, there is a place of peace; but in this one,
there seems to be constant motion. The glowing orbs are
interesting and are the point of emphasis by those who
particularly like this painting. They call it a “fairytale come to
life.” (artistsnetwork.com) This, however, is my least favorite of all of the Maxfield
Parrish paintings that I have viewed.
Perhaps, Maxfield himself was getting tired of creating the fairytale. In his
later life, he returned to painting only landscapes. He had great success with
landscapes in the past and one of his most famous and memorable was Daybreak
painted in 1922.
Daybreak was the first work Parrish created specifically as an art print for
reproduction and resale. Within three years of its production, the publisher
estimated that one in every four American homes owned a copy. The image has
maintained its popularity and has been used as the basis for movie posters, cd
covers and music videos. The scene is classical, lyrical and romantic. It could be a
real place, but it could also be an imaginary place. This may be what makes it so
irresistible and timeless.
My favorites of Maxfield Parissh’s paintings are his landscapes. I’m not sure I
can pick just one, so I have included three here.
The first is Dream Castle in the Sky painted in
1908. I love his treatment of the nude figure on
the rock. She almost blends in completely. She’s
coy and modest but very comfortable in her
natural surroundings. I also love the light in this
painting. It shimmers off of the trees, the foliage,
all the way to the clouds in the background
behind the mountain and castle. I’m drawn into the center of the painting by way
of the light shimmering off the water. It’s reminiscent of Monet’s water lilies and
just as entrancing.
Riverbank Autumn is another of my favorite landscapes by Parrish. Supposedly,
this is a painting of the secret meeting place of Mayfield and a lover. Regardless of
its meaning to the artist, it is a tranquil scene,
masterfully painted in light and shadows.
Again, I admire how the light reflecting off
the water pulls the eye into the scene right
past the large tree that anchors the
foreground. I would love to know how many
hours he spent painting this one piece. The
detail and lighting is incredible. To paint this
place in this much detail, he must have spent a
great deal of time there. It was obviously a
very special place to him.
The first painting that made me aware of
Parrish as an artist was Aquamarine painted in
1917. It is also the only painting of his that I have
attempted to reproduce. The composition is
interesting and unusual. The odd shape of the
tree stuck on top of the rock in the midst of the
water is unusual and must have caught Parrish’s
artistic eye. The classic Parrish Blue is what
caught my eye when I first saw the painting in
addition to the strange shape of the tree and the
negative space on the right side of the painting. Trees have always intrigued me as
an artist. Perhaps that is why I love the landscapes by Parrish. He treats the trees
with such care and detail. I appreciate that and hope to hone my skills so that I can
paint with the same care for detail, color, light and luminosity as Maxfield Parrish.
In 1936, Time magazine stated that at that time the three most popular
artists in the world were Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Maxfield Parrish.
(artistsnetwork.com) Van Gogh and Cezanne both were impressionists. All three used
brilliant colors to bring their paintings to life. However, Parrish’s art was different.
He was a realist painting imaginary scenes in realistic settings. Eight decades later,
his art as well as his influence on the art world has remained timeless. He was a trail
blazer, an innovator and the forerunner for all commercial illustrators who would
follow. Although he did not know it at the time, Maxfield Parrish was pivotal in
forming the Golden Age of Illustration in American Art History.
JVJ Publishing Illustrators. Maxfield Parrish Color and Light bpib.com/
illustrat/parrishc. Accessed 19 September 2018.
Maxfield Parrish. parrish-house.com. Accessed 19 September 2018.
Maxfield Parrish. July 25, 2016, tmlarts.com/maxfield-parrish . Accessed 29
Maxfield Parrish: The Retrospective. americanillustrators.com/travel/
maxfield-parish-the-retrospective. Accessed 29 September 2918.
Ten Masterpieces from Mayfield Parrish, Ranked. https://
19 September 2018.
Maxfield Parrish, Page 11
Debra Caroline - My desire is to create illustrations that tell a story - illustrations that inspire and engage the viewer. A lot of research goes into each one of my illustrations. This blog is where I will share what I am currently working on and learning about. I hope you enjoy it.