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 Maxfield Frederick Parrish  (1870 - 1966)

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About: Maxfield Frederick Parrish
 

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Lived/Active: New Hampshire      Known for: illustration-romanticized scenes, mural painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
One of America's best-known and revered illustrators, especially for children's books and magazines, Maxfield Parrish was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family.  His birth name was Frederick Maxfield Parrish, and he later adopted the name Maxfield.

His father, Stephen Parrish, was a successful landscape painter and etcher, and he and Maxfield's mother,  Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish, encouraged their son's artistic talent. Maxfield's father was his his first teacher, and he took his son to tour the museums of Europe when the boy was only ten, and together they painted and sketched.

Initially interested in architecture, young Parrish studied in France, England; at Haverford College; at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and at Drexel Institute, where one of his teacher's was illustrator Howard Pyle, later to become a major influence in his work.  Parrish was also much admiring of Edwin Austin Abbey and artist members of the N.C. Wyeth family.

His work creating covers and illustrations for books allowed the young artist and his new bride, Lydia, to move in 1895 to the Cornish/ Windsor area where his father, Stephen had already taken up residence.  
 
Parrish contracted tuberculosis in 1900. Around the same time, he began to focus more on oil painting than illustration. His magically luminous works, with their brilliant colors, became hugely popular, a popularity that lasted on into the 1940s. The method he used to acheive these affects was to apply many layers of thin oil, alternating with varnish, over stretched paper. It was a painstaking process, but resulted in exceptional detail and luminosity.  Maxfield's patrons and buyers of his art were often in the upper echelons of society, commerce, and industry. Names such as Vanderbilt, Whitney, Astor, Du Pont and Hearst formed the primary core of buyers for his paintings.  The tuberculosis hung on and Parrish spent time in Arizona to convalesce in the dry heat there. The Arizona landscape influenced the high coloration and distinctive style of his later work.   

In 1905, Parrish met Susan Lewin, a 16-year old girl who he and his wife had hired from a nearby farm town to help with their children. Lydia and Maxfield had waited to begin their family until the artist was cured of the tuberculosis that had robbed him of his health. She was in her early thirties when she began her first pregnancy, with son Dillwyn, and was close to forty when Jean, their final child, was born. Susan Lewin's image appears often in paintings from 1905 through the 1920s. Over time, she became Parrish's assistant, model for his paintings, and eventually allegedly his lover. She posed for the bulk of the figures for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's murals (1912-16). Maxfield and his wife grew increasingly estranged and the two lived in separate houses on their property, The Oaks. Susan Lewin stayed with Maxfield for another 50 years, but after his wife's death he did not marry her, and Lewin left and married another man. Parrish died soon after, at age 95, in 1966.

Most of his early career he did cover designs for Collier's magazine.  Later he turned to murals, and one was commissioned in the 1920s by Cyrus Curtis, owner of The Saturday Evening Post for the publication's headquarters in Philadelphia.  It was a fairy tale landscape with 100,000 pieces of Tiffany glass in 260 colors held in place by thousands of wires connected to the wall.  It was made in the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Important figures of his time thought nothing of posing for Parrish. John Jacob Astor's ventured into Parrish's realm of humor when he posed for the figure of King Cole. Ruth (Kitty) Owen, the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan, was another model of the artist. During their summer visit to the Parrishes' home in 1920, Kitty posed for several of the famous paintings that Parrish had in the works.

Parrish is especially known for his color (people refer to 'Parrish blue'), but his early work was in black and white. Detail, composition and texture make Parrish's work particularly recognizable. Books and magazines gave him a great public following, but it was his prints and calendars that brought him the widest exposure. Parrish began a series of works to be mass distributed as fine art prints during the 1920's. One of these works, the 1922 oil, Daybreak, became the most reproduced work in the history of American art. In 1925, it was estimated that one out of every five American homes had a Maxfield Parrish print on the wall.

Sources include:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Jim Vadeboncoeur, The Vandeboncoeru Collection of Knowledge
Coy Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish
John Goodspeed Stuart, Young Maxfield
Alma Gilbert Smith, author of many books and articles about the artist and director of the Cornish Colony Museum
Website: parrish.artpassions.net


Biography from American Illustrators Gallery:
As children, none of us can forget the first instance of seeing an art picture or a book illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. Everyone recognizes the magical world woven by Parrish usually with the color lapiz lazuli in its purest form. His signature use of this color was so powerful that a certain cobalt blue has become universally known as ‘Parrish Blue’. His idealized images with figures of feminine pulchritude adorned in classical gowns with backgrounds of electric violets, radiant reds and rich glowing earth tone pigments, created an idyllic world indeed.

Other images had scenes embellished with billowing clouds in a fairy tale ambience of maidens and knights lying under porticoes and these were equally harmonic, idealistic, and loved.Author’s words accompanying such images became superfluous. Yet when those words were read, they were so enhanced by the illustrations that the reader was attracted into the illustrator’s magnetic fantasies.

Books illustrated by Parrish no longer belonged to their authors, but rather they became ‘Parrish’ books, just as a generic color became ‘Parrish Blue.’ As a result of this ability to create such a sublime splendor, Maxfield Parrish became unquestionably the most successful and best-known American illustrator of the early part of the twentieth century. As adults, we long still for such visual images to materialize and we harbor some childish guilt within us for not being able to seek out these scenes of make-believe.

Parrish has seized such visions and such images for us - forever. We all thought that his paintings were of real places and that these extraordinary people and fire-breathing dragons actually lived and coexisted peacefully. Their images were too realistic not to be believed. Their stark beauty and superb execution denied us any ability to question their existence. They were photographic, mechanical and above all, technically accurate.

His lush coloristic effects with extraordinary detail and academic perfection were first broadly recognized by the American public in the 1920’s and they rewarded him with an unrivaled national popularity. In 1925, one out of every four households in the United States had a copy of one of his art prints hanging in their living rooms. In a survey taken at that time by a group of art print publishers, findings showed that the three favorite artists were Cezanne, van Gogh, and Parrish.

For 58 years he was married to Lydia, a pretty art instructor who later became one of the first documentors of African-American slave songs of the Deep South. Yet, he also had a beautiful model/mistress and one of the most romantic relationships of the century.

For over 55 years, the lovely Susan Lewin was his constant companion. She lived with him in his studio at ‘The Oaks’, his Cornish, New Hampshire estate. It was Susan whom he immortalized in so many of his incredible artworks.

He counted amongst his friends, Woodrow Wilson -28th President of the United States, Walter Lippman -the journalist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens -the sculptor, Frederic Remington -the artist, Winston Churchill -the most popular American novelist of his day (not to be confused with the English statesman), Ethel Barrymore -the legendary actress, and then some local farmers and carpenters like plain old George Ruggles of Plainfield, New Hampshire.

In 1960, a few years after the death of Lydia, when he did not marry Susan, she retaliated by marrying a childhood friend. Although 90 years old, Parrish was still painting actively, but upon learning of Susan’s marriage, his hand froze and he never painted again.

He influenced the work of Vasarely, with images bordering on Op Art, Andy Warhol (who collected his work) with repetitive, reproducible Pop Art prototypes, and even the great American illustrator, Norman Rockwell who had said that Parrish was his ‘idol.’ The Realist, Photorealist and Superrealist movements owe their directions to his legacy. He was revered, but nearly forgotten and then rediscovered when he was in his 90’s in 1964.

His life was rich and full and he did not suffer as many other artists have with tortured lives. On the other hand, strange mysteries persisted throughout his life: a father whom he emulated had a broken marriage (unheard of) in the 1890’s, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and a son who later committed suicide. He had an inordinate lover for the business side of his craft, but he rarely spent any money, and it all added up to a movie script life.

In fact, he was a Hollywood-handsome man who had stashed his incredible talented self away in the remote hills of New Hampshire and once there, created a make-believe world of his own and never left. However, the fact remains that very few Parrish’s original paintings have been seen by the contemporary art audiences. The most recent major exhibitions of his work were held in 1961 at a Bennington College exhibit, then in 1964 at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York, again in 1974 at the Brandywine River Museum in a tribute exhibition entitled, "Master of Make Believe."

The most recent comprehensive exhibition was in 1989 at the American Illustrators Gallery, the first New York exhibition since his death at the enviable and ripe old age of 95.

After a long and self-satisfied life, this striking and earnest gentleman died on March 30, 1966, at his beloved home and studio, ‘The Oaks’ in Plainfield, New Hampshire. ‘The Oaks’ is in the middle of the artist colony founded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, his artist father Stephen, and other creative notables of Cornish.

The oak trees he loved and photo-realistically portrayed in so many of his paintings, move listlessly outside his home as they had for hundreds of years before and since. His artistic career had ended some six years earlier.

Laurence S. Cutler, AIA RIBA* Holderness, NH*Co-author with Judy Goffman of Maxfield Parrish, published by Crescent Books and distributed by Outlet Books of Random House, 1993.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, V:
Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1870
Died: Plainfield, New Hampshire 1966

Unique Eastern illustrator and painter in Arizona, 1902, noted as colorist of “Maxfield Parrish blue.”

The son of the Philadelphia etcher and landscape painter Stephen Parrish, Maxfield Parrish was educated at Haverford College, 1888-91. He studied art at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and was the pupil of Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute, Philadelphia. Early in his career, he had typhoid fever, requiring recuperation away from the East. First, he went to Saranac in the Adirondacks where the winter forced him to give up his water-base inks in favor of oils. Second, he went to sunny Arizona where he was influenced as a colorist. He painted Southwestern landscapes in a style already distinctive in his 1902 illustrations for Century. Third, he went to Italy. Recovered physically, he settled in Windsor, Vermont.

Parrish was best known as an illustrator for children’s books and magazines. Some of these illustrations, as the 1927 Pueblo Dwelling for “The Home University Bookshelf,” were based on his Southwestern experiences. Reproductions of his illustrations were widely collected. A favorite work The Dream Garden was designed by Parrish and executed in Favrile glass by Tiffany as a mosaic mural in 1915. “Insider” favorites were the paintings in the bar of the St. Regis in New York City and in the Palace Bar in San Francisco.

Resource: SAMUELS’ Encyclopedia of ARTISTS of THE AMERICAN WEST,
Peggy and Harold Samuels, 1985, Castle Publishing

Biography from The Parrish House Museum:

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) is considered the most reproduced artist in the entire history of art.  His painting Daybreak (1922) which was sold May 1996 by Sotheby's in New York for a price of $4.3 million established a record as the highest price ever paid for the work of an American illustrator.  Parrish was born in Philadelphia, studied at Haverford College and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Parrish worked as an illustrator in Philadelphia until 1898, when he settled in Plainfield, New Hampshire.  He called his home "The Oaks".  He was commissioned to paint his first magazine cover in 1895 at the age of twenty-five.  About twenty artists were asked to compete.  Parrish's entry won.  1905 proved to be a turning point in the artist life.  The woman that was to become his muse and long time lover, Sue Lewin, posed for him for the first time for a major work titled Land of Make-Believe the year she joined the household as an au pair for his children and studio assistant for Parrish.  Subsequently, she modeled in most of his major paintings including both male and female figures in the Florentine Fete, a series of murals executed for the Curtis Publishing Company.

Parrish was inundated with commissions from publishers and advertisers.  It is estimated that his art delivered over one billion advertisement messages.  He also illustrated many books for such major American authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, L. Frank Baum, Kenneth Grahame, Eugene Fields, Louise Saunders and the redoubtable Edith Wharton.  His success and renown grew by leaps and bounds.  Commissions for advertisers like Edison Mazda (the precursor of GE) made Parrish's name a household word in the 20's.  This led to his success in the print market.  The House of Art published many of his well known prints, including Daybreak which was to become the most reproduced image in the history of art. 

In the latter years of his life, from the age of sixty to ninety, Parrish almost exclusively dedicated himself to painting landscapes. They were published almost exclusively by Brown and Bigelow in St. Paul, Minnesota, as calendars and executive prints.  Parrish painted until the age of ninety-one and achieved the distinction of being one of the best remunerated artists of his day.  He died at his home, "The Oaks" in Plainfield, New Hampshire, having lived to see his paintings hanging in the permanent collection of museums.

Parrish has strongly influenced American art.  Many of the major luminaries in the art world such as Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol have collected and been influenced by his work.  Today, Parrish oils are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Detroit Art Institute, and the De Young Museum to name a few of the major art institutions that house his work.  In his quiet and non-assuming way, Parrish proved beyond the shadow of a doubt the old adage that illustration is at the heart of American Art in the 20th century.  His place in history is secure.

Alma Gilbert-Smith


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