Parrish House Foundation
The Parrish House Foundation
HomeHomeExhibitionsMaxfield ParrishColony ArtistsEducationAbout UsLinks

Founder's discussion of the career of Maxfield Parrish


The Cornish Colony was made up of artists, sculptors, writers, politicians and entertainers who lived and worked in the adjoining towns of Plainfield and Cornish in New Hampshire, and across the Connecticut River in Windsor, VT. 

Maxfield Parrish about 1930
Picture from Rauner Special Collections, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH


I have now written fourteen books on the artist and curated his National Exhibition which toured of museums around the country during 2005. It would seem to be like gilding the lily to begin with a biographical sketch. Nevertheless, Parrish did not become one of the most important and beloved artists of the 20th century in a vacuum, for the viewer to understand more fully the paintings before him, perhaps a brief retelling of pertinent biographical data must be done.

Parrish was born Fred Maxfield Parrish to Stephen Parrish and his wife, Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish in Philadelphia July 25, 1870. His father, a well known etcher and respected painter in his day was his son's first teacher. Together, father and son toured the museums of Europe when the boy was only ten and spent many happy hours together painting and sketching in Europe as well as Maine, Philadelphia and Massachusetts here in the states. Parrish attended Haverford College and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts where his graduating class included the likes of William Glackens and Florence Scovel Shinn. There he trained under Robert Vonnoh and Thomas Anschutz. After monitoring some illustration classes taught by Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute and meeting the young instructor, Lydia Austin who was to become his wife, he began accepting commissions illustrating covers for several magazines such as Harper's, Century, Scribner's, Ladies Home Journal, Collier's, Life, Metropolitan, Hearst's and virtually a who's who of top magazines of the day.

Early covers and illustrations for books allowed the young artist and his bride to move to the Cornish/ Windsor area where his father, Stephen had already taken residence. The artist's patrons and buyers of his art were 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. After a series of oils illustrating the history of light for Edison Mazda lights made his name a household one in the country, the artist began a series of works to be mass distributed as fine art prints during the 20's. One of these works the 1922 oil, Daybreak, became the most reproduced work in the history of American Art. It is estimated that one out of every five American homes had a print of Daybreak hanging in their wall during the 1920's. One of the models of that work was Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan. Miss Owen also posed for the iconic work depicting a dramatic representation of the Quechee Gorge in Quechee, VT that the artist titled: Canyon.

It was with the commission for Irenee Du Pont, the spectacular Du Pont mural in 1933, which prompted the artist to leave the comfort and security of illustrative work for the more demanding and infinitely more emotionally satisfying work of painting what he loved most: the landscapes. Parrish painted landscapes from that time until 1961, when at the age of ninety one, the artist laid down his brushes forever. After his death in 1966, exhibits of his works in galleries and museums began the artist's climb in the public perception from illustration into the realm of fine art. During the year 2005, the National Exhibition Parrish: Master of Make-Believe which I had the honor to curate for the Trust For Museum Exhibitions in Washington, DC broke attendance records in four of the six museums that hosted the show. Parrish has finally come into his own, not only in the hearts of his public, but also in the acknowledgment of scholars, art connoisseurs and museums throughout the country.

Parrish about to take his own photo
 to be used in the painting "Potpourri"
The painting "Potpourri"
Scribner's Magazine Frontispiece
August 1905

EARLY WORKS (1887-1909)

The earliest work this exhibit displays is the pencil, pen and ink double sided figure which the young seventeen year old presented to his mother, Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish at the beginning of the year. Suitably titled: 1887 Calendar, the whimsical work gives the young artist a chance to present the wonderful, comedic portion of his imagination. It was later made into an etching by the same name. The Last Rose of Summer (1898) was an early cover for the Outing Magazine that the newly married artist used to help finance the purchase of his beloved home, The Oaks. The delicate oil on paper shows the young artist in a classic Greek robe under the magnificent tree that sheltered his house. Another early example of his illustration skills are the pen and ink drawings that he executed for his first major book commissions: L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose (1897); The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame (1899); and Washington Irving's Knickerbockers History of New York (1900). The three end pieces collectively titled: What They Talked About were done for the Grahame book which sold out of its editions in England and the United States.

Probably some of the best early magazine illustrations done by Parrish were the graceful and well executed Milkmaid and Poet's Dream done to illustrate John Milton's poem L'Allegro in the Century Magazine in 1901. The paintings prompted Parrish's friend and Cornish neighbor, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to proclaim in an illustrated letter to the artist written December 5, 1901: "These two paintings are among the most beautiful I have ever seen! To whom do they belong? Could I buy one of them? If so, I want to do so right away, quick, before some other feller gets his hands on them".

Unfortunately for the revered sculptor, the young painter had sold the works to one of his early society patrons, Ruth Hay Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's sister in law.

The years between 1904 and 1909 saw Parrish expand his illustration horizons by the book and magazine commissions that came his way. Edith Wharton the pre-eminent woman writer of the day commissioned his illustrations for her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens. Eugene Fields sought the artist to illustrate his Poems of Childhood. Both of these books were published by Scribner's. Scribner's used the dreamy and mystic like oil Vigil at Arms, also in this exhibit, as its frontispiece in their December 1904 issue of Scribner's Magazine to illustrate Ray Stannard Baker's poem of the same name.

Collier's was the magazine which had the most covers with this artist (over a hundred) between 1904 and 1936. Two important early covers: the 1905 Harvest (represented here with his oil study for the work), and the iconic Alphabet where the artist depicted his young son puzzling over a dazzling array of letters in his first book are exhibited here. The 1906 luminous and light filled cover which the artist named Winter appeared in Collier's near the end of that season when maple sugaring was just beginning that year. The Decorative Cover appeared in 1908.

He was also much in demand as a muralist:  iconic works such as the Old King Cole done as a commission for John Jacob Astor (now hanging in New York’s St. Regis Hotel); the Pied Piper for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco; Sing a Song of Sixpence for the Sherman Hotel in Chicago; the magnificent Whitney Murals  for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the sixteen murals for the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia and the final mural: the 1933 Du Pont mural for Irenee DuPont.

Since I have had the sobriquet of being considered the "Parrish Authority" I have seen many illustrations and works purported to be originals which turned out not to be so, or simply prints of the original. Three times in 35 years I have had the opportunity to report to an owner that what they may have thought to be a Parrish print or hoped, it might maybe, MAYBE be an original turned out to be the real thing! In the early seventies, the owner of the 1904 Vigil at Arms brought in what she thought was a print of Parrish left to her in her father's house which she had just inherited. I had the pleasure to announce that it was an original oil on paper by the artist. Three years ago, an Auxiliary in Chicago sent me what they had hoped might be a Parrish print left for them in their outdoor donation barrel. It turned out to be the original 1918 Jack Sprat an oil on paper painting typical of the Parrish technique.

The third original has just surfaced. It is a study for the St. Regis Hotel's mural Old King Cole by Maxfield Parrish. It is even more defined and finished that the half size study which Maxfield Parrish Jr., the executor of his father's estate, authenticated for me in 1974. This work which the owner thought that maybe, just maybe might have some value, was sent to me for inspection. It pleased me greatly to authenticate it.



This is the portion of the artist's life that the bulk of his figurative and commission work was accomplished. Beginning in 1918 when the artist finished the murals for the reception room one of one of the wealthiest women of America, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and ending with the magnificent Du Pont Mural, Parrish saw this period of his career as his most productive and remunerative one. The North Wall panel, the final of seven murals for Mrs. Whitney, is considered the longest single work that the artist completed, and next to Daybreak, his most important one.

This was also the period where most of his iconic works such as Daybreak (1922), Canyon (1923), Interlude (1926), and the entire set of illustrations done for the Knave of Hearts book (1925) were completed. Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of famed William Jennings Bryan posed for many of the works in this period. She is the reclining figure in Daybreak and the stunning strawberry blonde waif posed in the spectacular (but somewhat dramatized) Quechee Gorge in Canyon. Kitty is one of the three young women posing for Interlude, the young model in Wild Geese and all the figures of Lady Violetta in the Knave of Hearts book illustrations.

Maxfield Parrish in his beloved machine shop at The Oaks

Most Parrish scholars agree that it was in this time frame (1917 to 1934) that Parrish became the most reproduced artist of the 20th century. This also was the time when Parrish concluded a set of calendars for Edison Mazda. He did a series of paintings from 1917 to 1934 illustrating the history of light for the company formed by Edison and his lamp and light bulb manufacturer, Mazda. This company became the General Electric conglomerate of today. The company estimated that during this seventeen year period, Parrish helped them deliver over seven BILLION product messages for their company.

THE FINAL WORKS (1934-1961)

At an age when most people look to retire, Parrish began the portion of his career that brought him into the realm of fine art and the collections of museums. Landscapes were the genre that Parrish had always loved best. The artist always managed to include snippets of landscapes in even his earliest figurative paintings.

In 1936 the artist created a handsome landscape featuring the Connecticut River, the physical boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire and a view across the way of a Vermont town and mountain range in the distance. The work was titled: New Hampshire in the back, but it became known primarily with the title: Land of Scenic Splendor and then later: Thy Templed Hills, the name that Brown and Bigelow had used when it published a print of it for the artist. The work was given by the artist to the tellers of the Windsor County National Bank (where Parrish banked). When his son and executor, Maxfield Parrish, Jr., questioned him as to where the work was, the artist wrote back: "I'm giving it [Thy Templed Hills] to the tellers at the Windsor Bank in perpetuity for keeping my accounts out of the soup!".

Maxfield Parrish in retirement in the living room of his studio
Picture from Rauner Special Collections, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

Not to be outdone in his love for Vermont, the artist created several New Hampshire landscapes, including the 1945 lovely view of the Austin Farm (Hilltop Farm, Winter) across from the artist's home which Brown and Bigelow published with the name The Twilight Hour in 1951, Dingleton Farm (1956) and Lights of Home (1943).

ALMA GILBERT-SMITH     July of 2010

Founder and Director
Parrish House Foundation