Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe
by Alma M. Gilbert
FREDERICK PARRISH was born to Quaker parents Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish and Stephen Parrish in Philadelphia on July 25, 1870. He was descended from Edward Parrish of Yorkshire, England, the captain of a trading vessel who settled in what later became the City of Baltimore. Another ancestor, author Caleb Pusey, was closely associated with William Penn in the colonization of Pennsylvania. His father Stephen (1846-1938), an artist and etcher of note, was the grandson of Dr. Joseph Parrish (1779-1840), a surgeon and staunch abolitionist who founded the first evening school for blacks in America in the early 1800s. Frederick took his paternal grandmother's name of Maxfield as his middle name.
The illustrious American background and gene pool molded young Frederick's love of mechanics -- one of his uncles held many early patents for his inventions -- as well as his gift for writing and expressing himself with art.
Young Fred's first teacher was his father. Stephen presented his three-year-old son with a sketch pad which the youngster filled with whimsical and imaginative drawings. Both father and son had a wonderful relationship throughout their lives. Coming from a very devout Quaker family, Stephen Parrish had not been allowed to develop his love of painting openly. As a young lad, he had begun by drawing and painting in the attic of his home. Later, when he married Elizabeth Bancroft, he began supplementing his income as owner and operator of a stationery shop in Philadelphia by teaching etching classes above the store.
The elder Parrish was determined that his son would have opportunities to develop what he already perceived as substantial talent without being made to feel as if he were doing something sinful and inappropriate. When Fred was only six years old, his father gave up the stable income of the stationery shop, sold the business and embarked seriously into the world of art. Stephen was determined that his son would develop the very real talent that he saw emerging. Both father and son began to take painting trips together during the weekends, first to nearby local places in Philadelphia, then branching out to Cape Ann, East Gloucester and Annisquam in Massachusetts.
Fred had his first taste of what it would be like to sell his art when he was attending early grammar school, and one of his classmates was Pierre du Pont. Parrish had built an elaborate marionette playhouse as a project for one of his classes. Young du Pont admired it. "I'd like to buy that theater," said Pierre du Pont. "It's not for sale," Parrish replied. "I'll give you a dollar for it!" "Well, for that you can have it," the budding "business man with a brush" was said to exclaim. That was the first dealing Maxfield Parrish, future master of make-believe and creator of mountainscapes, had with the distinguished du Ponts of Delaware. The young creator kept that first dollar despite a money-back demand shortly afterward from the boy who became one of America's wealthiest industrialists.
In 1877 father and son embarked on a painting trip to France. Much to his father's horror, the seven year old contracted typhoid during his first visit to France. The father kept his son quiet while recovering from the dangerous fever by providing the youngster with scissors, paper and pen and allowing him to let his imagination run free. This may have inspired Parrish many years later for the painting he executed for Eugene Fields, Poems of Childhood, depicting a little boy sick in bed and playing with his toy soldiers. It certainly must have influenced his practice of using pencil cut-outs in the preparation of compositions later in life.
Several years later, when Fred was fourteen years old, Elizabeth and Stephen again took their son with them on a two-year trip to Europe. They visited England, northern Italy and Paris. Fred studied at Dr. Kornemann's school in Paris for a year. His letters to his grandmother describe how he watched the funeral of Victor Hugo perched on a tree at the Champs-Elysèes. The witty letters that young Parrish wrote to his cousin Henry Bancroft are also full of whimsical and clever drawings. They are located in the collection of the Delaware Museum.
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