So. Who is this Maxfield Parrish? Sadly, he is one of those supposedly famous people that many today are not aware of. Yet, if a history of illustration were written, Parrish would probably be one of the most eminent names in it. One of America’s most popular illustrators during the first half of the 20th century, Parrish used his virtuoso technique and unique style to bring alive magical lands filled with dreamy landscapes, fantastic architecture, sprites, gremlins, Classical heroes, beautiful damsels, and adorably caricatured fairytale characters.
Parrish was born in Philadelphia in 1870 to a Quaker family. His father, Stephen Parrish, was a shopkeeper and artist best known for his etchings of the New England coastline. Parrish ever cited his father as his most influential teacher, and indeed it would seem that his father began prepping his son to be artist at a very young age; at the encouragement of his father, the young Parrish covered practically everything he touched with precocious and imaginative doodles. As a young man, Parrish enrolled at Haverford College in 1888 to study architecture, but left after two years to enroll at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1895, he traveled to Europe, where he became enamored with the surface detail of the Old Dutch masters and the rich colors and sparkling glazes of Titian – all of which would become important aspects of Parrish’s own style.
After returning to Philadelphia, Parrish set up his own studio and was soon well established as a successful illustrator for magazines and advertisements. He illustrated his first book, Mother Goose in Prose (1897) by L. Frank Baum, and was immediately recognized as the new best thing in children’s book illustration. But Parrish had other talents besides that of drawing and painting. In 1898, he designed and personally built The Oaks, a house in Cornish, New Hampshire, which would remain his lifelong home. Critics praised The Oaks as an architectural gem, and Parrish proved himself to be even more of a Renaissance man with the beautiful hardware and ornaments of wood and metal that he made by hand for The Oaks. And while doing all of the above, Parrish still found time to paint murals for businesses and private homes.
As an illustrator, Parrish created art for many children’s books, including works by Kenneth Grahame, Edith Wharton, Eugene Field, L. Frank Baum, and Washington Irving. Although best remembered as a book illustrator, Parrish did more work for magazines and advertising than he did for books. His illustrations were used as cover art for a plethora of widely read magazines, such as Collier’s, Life, Harper’s Weekly, Ladies’ Home Journal, Scribner’s, Century, and Hearst’s. In fact, many of his book illustrations were originally published in magazines. In advertising, his pictures could sell practically anything, including seeds, car tires, Jell-O, silverwork, electric lamps, cameras, ham, and chocolates, to mention just a few.
His early work of the 1890s was usually a combination of litho crayon, ink, and watercolor; if color was needed, he laid oil glazes over the finished black and white drawing. Much of this early work is quite flat, bold, and stylized. However, after 1901, Parrish began painting almost exclusively with oil paints, which he layered in thin glazes like the Old Masters that he studied in Europe. With oil, Parrish explored the meticulous surface detailing, visual realism, chiaroscuro, and bold coloring that he is so famous for. “Parrish blue” was a term coined to describe the deep, rich hues of blue that he often incorporated into his exotic and fantastic scenes, which often are set in inspiring landscapes with Classical or Gothic inspired architecture. His fantastic style and subject matter were perfectly in line with the tastes of the turn-of-the century and the 1920s, when all things exotic and fantastic were popular.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Parrish largely turned from illustration in order to focus on one of the loves of his heart, landscape painting. His love of the New Hampshire countryside, which had always inspired the background landscapes of his illustration, now became the central focus of his work. Parrish painted until he was 91, when his shaking hands forced him to lay down his brush. He died in 1966 at the age of 95, leaving behind a huge body of work that is considered a classic in the history of illustration.
Ludwig, Coy. Maxfield Parrish. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1973.
Harris, Lois. Maxfield Parrish: Painter of Magical Make-Believe. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2011.