Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish
In many ways Maxfield Parrish was the antithesis of the popular image of bohemian artists, struggling for recognition and starving in noble sacrifice for their art. He was precise, orderly and methodical and was successful throughout his career.

Born into a family that unflaggingly encouraged his interest in art, he was taught initially by his father, Stephen Parrish, an engraver and landscape artist. Maxfield, whose given name was Frederick, chose to use his Grandmother’s maiden name as his middle name and became known by it. He was born in Philadelphia, graduated from Haverford College and went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts and also attended classes given by the great illustrator Howard Pyle at Drexel.

Pyle reportedly looked at Parrrish’s portfolio and said that there was nothing he could teach him, and simply encouraged him to develop a unique style. That is something Parrish certainly did. His work, although an integral part of the Golden Age of illustration, was unlike any artistic school, style or movement at the time. Since then, of course, he has been very influential and much imitated.

Few can imitate his actual technique, however. Parrish would painstakingly build up his luminescent colors in layer after layer of transparent glazes. Unlike the old masters who originated this technique, Parrish used a blue and white underpainting, rather then the traditional grissaile or terra verde. If you ever get to see his originals, you wll be struck by the jewel-like quality of his colors, almost like looking through stained glass. Parrish, in fact, collaborated with the famous glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany on glass mosaic mural called The Dream Garden, which can be seen in the Curtis Center near Independence Hall here in Philadelphia.

Parrish was renowned for his unorthodox use of color. His images are ablaze with brilliant hues that are often contrasted with their complementary color in the same image or on the same object, causing them to be intensified. He was also unorthodox in his mechanistic and methodical approach to composition and usually prepared his paintings from elaborate combinations of photographic reference, models and constructions. After making his mark as an illustrator for magazines like Colliers, he moved into painting specifically for reproduction as mass-produced prints, the first and most successful of which is his famous Daybreak (detail here).

What he really enjoyed doing most was landscape, and he created landscapes for 30 years for Brown & Bigelow, a calendar and greeting card company. His landscapes were never painted from life, though, and seldom referenced any real place. They were usually amalgams of images from various sources, a tree from his yard, a photograph of a mountain and a stream from somewhere else.

In fact, Parrish would often “construct” his own landscapes. He kept 30 or so pieces of granite, quartz and other rocks in his studio. These were painted a neutral brown and arranged on a piece of glass, giving the appearance of a reflective lake, set in layers of powered rock and strongly lit to give him the custom-designed landscape he wanted to paint. His colors were obviously those of his own choice and not those of nature, together producing a world of landscapes as unique as the masterful approach of the artist who painted them.

15 thoughts on “Maxfield Parrish

  1. Daniel van Benthuysen

    I have found over the years that I respect Parrish’s work more often than I actually like it. In the end the colors, while distinctively his own, are frequently just a bit too distracting, as if the paintings were executed on colored tin foil and lit by neon light. An important and clever artist and a brilliant technician but in the end his work seems too self-conciously contrived. I am grateful however for the glimpse of the Dream Garden in the Curtis Center. I was not aware of it and will want to stop to see it next time I’m down that way. Here in New York the Old King Cole murals for the bar of the same name were just taken down and are undergoing restoration and it will be interesting to see how they look when that project is complete.

  2. Joshua Middleton

    Nice feature. Parrish is another one of those artists whose popularity and commercial success sometimes makes it easy to somewhat overlook his artistic value and contribution to contemporary art in general.

    His colors are amazing, and very rich. What did he paint with?

  3. Charley Parker Post author

    Daniel,

    Thanks for the comments. I think his super-intense colors were intended to simply be bright in reproduction, which was more limited at the time. A bit of overcompensation. The unique choice of hue was decidedly intentional, and I think laid the groundwork for much of the color intensity found in modern day science fiction and fantasy illustration and movie production design.

    Dream Garden is just inside the lobby as you enter. The city almost lost it. There were plans to sell it to a private collector somewhere, but the city declared it a landmark to keep it here.

  4. Charley Parker Post author

    Joshua,

    Thanks. I agree. These artists become so familiar we can’t really see them unless we find a way to change context and look at them freshly.

    Parrish laid down a primer of Permalba White (F.W. Weber), did a monochromatic underpainting in monastral or ultramarine blue and painted his colors over that in layers of transparent oil color.

    He would apply a layer of varnish between layers of color, each layer of paint and varnish having to dry completely before the application of the next, a painstaking process that could take weeks. Like the old masters who invented this technique, he would of necessity work on several paintings at once, leaving the inactive ones to dry in the sun, or under heat lamps in the winter. He also worked with a stipple brush, applying tiny dots of pure color in graded tones like pen and ink stipple. This was insanely time-intensive and methodical. Needless to say, he was not working under tight deadlines.

    Much of my knowledge of his techniques is from a very good description in America’s Great Illustrators by Susan E. Meyer.

  5. john yim

    Love this! Parrish, along with the other great illustrators of his time, was so inspirational to me…and continues to be so. The “luminous” & “other-world-iness” of his images was so unique…

  6. Wenceslao

    Dunno why the “illustrator” nickname, he was a PAINTER, like caravaggio, leonardo, rembrandt etc. And like all decent painters in history, YES he had to draw!

    I rather possess one of his masterworks than anything done by Pollack, Dekanning, Warhal, Bisquit etc etc etc

  7. luke hanley

    Gerhard Richter uses stippling in his photo derived paintings as well. The transitions between the colours and tones are impossible otherwise.

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