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Maxfield Parrish Profile

American Illustrator’s Work Highly Valued by Collectors Since Early 1900s

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Maxfield Parrish 1932 Calendar Featuring

General Electric calendar featuring the Maxfield Parrish painting "Solitude", ca. 1932 - Sold at Morphy Auctions in August, 2012 for $510.

Photo Courtesy of Morphy Auctions
Birth and Death:

The iconic American illustrator Maxfield Parrish was born on July 25, 1870 in Philadelphia, Penn. as Frederick Parrish. He reportedly took on his grandmother’s maiden name “Maxfield” as his working name years later. He died on March 30, 1966, at “The Oaks” in Plainfield, New Hampshire where he had kept his home and studio since 1898.

It’s worthy of note that President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, President Teddy Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Isadora Duncan, who reportedly danced in Parrish’s music room, were known to have visited and praised the beauty of the property and its gardens, according to The Parrish House Foundation’s website.

Early Years as an Artist:

Parrish developed an interest in art at an early age beginning with drawing. His father was also a creative type working as an engraver and painter, and he nurtured his son’s talents by tutoring him and taking him on museum tours through Europe.

In the book Young Maxfield Parrish by John Goodspeed Stuart many of the illustrated letters he penned as a teenager and sent home from abroad are featured. Even in these early drawings intended as communications rather than “works,” his innate talent and attention to artistic detail are evident.

He went on to train at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Drexel Institute of Art where he studied briefly under the instruction of Howard Pyle alongside other notable artists producing collectible illustrations such as Samuel Schmucker and Jessie Wilcox Smith.

Working at Mid-Life:

While his earliest works were published in black and white, Parrish invented techniques as a painter that allowed him to convey light, color and painstaking detail to the viewer like no other. His craft drew admirers of his work into a fantasy world he created on canvas. By the 1920s, his work was in high demand and he was more than sufficiently compensated for his efforts as both an illustrator and painter.

The National Museum of American Illustration notes, “Books illustrated by Parrish no longer belonged to their authors, but rather they became ‘Parrish’ books, just as a generic color became ‘Parrish Blue.’”

At the turn of the 20th century he produced numerous illustrations for children’s books and magazines, including many covers for Collier’s, Life, and Ladies Home Journal among other periodicals. His calendar prints, like the one accompanying this article, were also extremely popular during the 1930s.

As for his paintings, Gilded Age patrons such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Du Ponts and Hearsts were known to commission and own these works. He also painted numerous murals during the height of his career including Old King Cole commissioned by John Jakob Astor, which now resides in the posh St. Regis Hotel bar in Manhattan. Another mural, the Pied Piper, now hangs in the bar of the same name in the historic Palace Hotel in San Francisco. But perhaps the most sought after and famous of his works, at least with contemporary collectors, are his paintings and prints depicting graceful nudes completed during the 1920s like his masterpiece “Daybreak”.

Toward the End of His Life:

As hard as it is to believe given his popularity in the early 1900s, by the late 1950s his work was passé and largely forgotten by the American public as they embraced post-World War II modern design and style. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Parrish was in his 90s, that his work experienced a revival in popularity.

Still painting late in life, he continued until he was in his early 90s (some sources say 90, others say 91) when he learned that his mistress of more than 50 years, Susan Lewin, had married a childhood friend. His relationship with Lewin, said to be “one of the most romantic of the century,” ended after his wife’s death and his refusal to marry the mistress who had also served as his model years earlier.

Parrish’s Family Ties:

Parrish was married for more than 58 years to Lydia Austin, an art instructor he met while attending the Drexel Institute of Art. The couple had four children together.

Celebrating His Work:

It’s reported that Norman Rockwell considered Parrish to be his ‘idol’. Andy Warhol also collected his work. But according to the National Museum of American Illustration, few contemporary audiences have enjoyed extended exhibitions of his original paintings. It’s said that no print can capture the true brilliance of Parrish’s work, and to truly appreciate his fairy world built around color and light one must view the original paintings in person.

Fans wanting to fully appreciate this mastery can view a number of examples of his original work in the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, R.I., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the San Diego Museum of Art which toured its “Master of Make Believe” collection in 2005.

His Popularity with Collectors:

In 1925, one out of every four households in the United States had a copy of a Parrish art print hanging on their walls. In a survey taken at that time by a group of art print publishers, respondents named their three favorite artists as Cezanne, van Gogh, and Parrish. Given the popularity of Parrish’s work in the early part of the 20th century, it would stand to reason that there are enough of his prints and illustrations to satisfy today’s collector market at reasonable prices, but that’s not entirely the case depending on your budget.

The 1932 calendar illustrating this article sold for $510 (not including buyer’s premium) in August, 2012. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this highly valued artistry. Those aforementioned cover illustrations for Collier’s, along with other magazine prints, also bring good money on today’s secondary market with most selling for more than $100 apiece and even more when nicely framed and in excellent condition.

It’s also interesting to note that the iconic Parrish painting “Daybreak” was purchased by Robyn Gibson, ex-wife of actor Mel Gibson, for $7.6 million in 2006. It was resold by the couple in 2010 after their divorce for $5.2 million. Those with a more modest art budget can buy a new print of the same imagery starting at about $25.

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