Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester

Rochester, NY



Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966


The New York Times calls him "one of the country's first brand-name artists" and notes that his images "helped define the mood and style of an era." Smithsonian magazine calls him "the common man's Rembrandt." By the 1920s, he was the highest paid artist in America, and his prints were said to hang in one out of every four households. (left: Gnome (Snow White), ca. 1916, Painted figure cutout with jigsaw, 16 1/2 x 5 inches, American Precision Museum, Windsor, VT.)

His name was Maxfield Parrish, and his long and prolific career is the focus of a major exhibition which opened at the Memorial Art Gallery February 20, 2000. Organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and The American Federation of Arts, Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966 is the first-ever critical retrospective of one of America's most beloved artists-and the largest and most expensive exhibition ever shown at the Gallery.

The exhibition, which remains on view through April 30, 2000 comprises more than 130 paintings, drawings, prints, photos and ephemera from the artist's 70-year career. Among the key works in this traveling exhibition is a painting well known to Memorial Art Gallery visitors. Interlude: The Lute Players, which George Eastman commissioned for Rochester's Eastman Theater, is on permanent loan to the Gallery from the Eastman School of Music. (right: Sinbad Plots Against the Giant,1907, Oil on cardboard, 20 1/8 x 16 1/8 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Centennial gift of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan.)


The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of

Deeply committed to the popularization of art, Maxfield Parrish was one of the first artists to take advantage of technological advances in the color printing industry. For seven decades, he made a fine living turning out magazine covers, book illustrations, posters, calendars, murals and paintings. He actually conceived many of his paintings with a mind to how they would look as prints. For their part, Americans delighted in his visions of fantasy, with overtones of nostalgia, innocence and humor. They loved his hyperrealistic renderings and his signature "Parrish blue"--an iridescent blend of cobalt, emerald, Indian yellow and rose madder. As Brace Watson sums it up in Smithsonian: "In a hustling world where skies were too often gray and gardens no bigger than a Brooklyn back-yard, Parrish painted the stuff dreams are made of." (left: Princess Parizade Bringing Home the Singing Tree, 1906, Oil on stretched paper, 20 1/16 x 16 1/16 inches, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan.)

left to right: Arizona, 1950, Oil on board, 20 1/2 x 17 inches, Phoenix Art Museum. Bequest of Thelma Kieckhefer; Two Pastry Cooks: Blue Hose and Yellow Hose, 1921, Oil and paper laid down on panel, 20 1/8 x 16 1/4 inches, Private collection; Daybreak, 1922, Oil on panel, 26 x 45 inches, Private collection; Edison Mazda Lamps Calendar: Ecstasy, 1930, Lithograph on paper, 33 7/8 x 15 3/8 inches, Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia; detail of Edison Mazda Lamps Calendar: Ecstasy

In 1936, Time magazine went so far as to proclaim Maxfield Parrish one of the three most popular artists in the world--the others being Van Gogh and Cézanne. But such unashamed commercialism did not sit well with the critics, and it would be another three decades before the art world--spurred by such Parrish enthusiasts as Andy Warhol--would once again embrace Maxfield Parrish.


A Second Look

In 1964, an exhibition of Parrish's work opened at Bennington College. There was surprise in some quarters when it turned out that the artist was not dead, but alive and well at his hilltop home in New Hampshire. He was 94 years old and had only recently painted what would be his last picture. Parrish, once denounced as hopelessly middlebrow, suddenly found himself lionized by the critics and hailed as a progenitor of Pop Art.

left to right: Harper's Bazar: Cinderella, 1914, Lithograph on paper, 14 1/4 x 9 3/4 inches, Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia; Hunt Farm, 1948, Oil on board, 23 x 18 7/8 inches, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Gift of the artist, through the Friends of the Library; The Idiot, 1910, Oil paint over graphite and ink on stretched paper, 22 x 16 inches, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Bequest of Arthur W. Barney; Interlude (The Lute Players), 1922, Oil on canvas, 6 feet 1I inches x 4 feet 11 inches,. Memorial Art Gallery, permanent loan from the Eastman School of Music.

Thirty-five years later, Maxfield Panish is enjoying yet another wave of interest, in the wake of the current retrospective. His works are setting records at auction. Celebrities from George Lucas to Jack Nicholson are collectors, following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol a generation ago. Parrish images are showing up on mouse pads and refrigerator magnets. And Daybreak--the image which once hung in a quarter of all American homes--has even been featured on bank checks.



A lavishly illustrated catalog, co-published by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., is available in the Gallery Store. It features an essay by exhibition curator Sylvia Yount on Parrish's achievements and legacy; and another by Mark F. Bockrath, paintings conservator at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, on Parrish's working methods. Both Yount and Bockrath will speak at the Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition. (left: School Days (Alphabet), 1908, Oil on board, 22 x 16 inches, Collection of Joan Purves Adams.)


National tour

The exhibition tour is organized by the American Federation of Arts.

left to right: Jack Frost, 1936, Oil on board, 25 x 19 inches,The Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA.; Old King Cole, 1894, Ink, watercolor, gouache and graphite on wove paper, 13 1/2 x 32 inches, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gilpin Fund Purchase; Ladies' Home Journal: Sweet Nothings, 1921, Lithograph on paper, 14 x 10 3/4 inches, Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia; Ferry's Seeds: Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, 1921, Oil on board, 27 x 20 inches, Department of Special Collections, University of California Library, Davis, CA.; Moonlight Night: Winter, 1942, Oil on board, 19 1/8 x 15 3/4 inches, The Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department.

Related articles in our magazine include:

Read more about the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/27/10

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.