Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



Parrish also shared with Elsie, whom he had nicknamed Daisy, some of his early longings for the beautiful Lydia Austin, a painting instructor at the Drexel Institute. Parrish had been attending lectures by the well-known illustrator Howard Pyle, one of the chief instructors at the Drexel. The young artist who had an eye for beauty could not help being smitten by the beautiful, patrician drawing instructor, one of only three women allowed to teach in the prestigious school.

Lydia Ambler Austin was born in Woodstown, New Jersey, to a Quaker farming family. The shy, intelligent and talented young woman was known to have a good mind and a drive of her own. From the many accounts I have collected, it appears that she was a suffragette at an early age and believed in helping women achieve status in their professions. In 1893, at the age of only twenty-one, she was hired by the prestigious Drexel Institute of Philadelphia to be only one of three women on their teaching staff. According to the school's prospectus for 1893-95, Lydia was among the staff that included Howard Pyle as an instructor. She was designated as one of two drawing teachers.

Howard Pyle was instrumental in preparing the way for Parrish to declare himself to Lydia in 1894. He suggested to Parrish that he felt the artist was ready to execute a commission for a magazine and recommended his work to Harper's Bazaar, who were looking for a new artist for their 1895 Easter cover.

The commission allowed the two young people to post their wedding announcement in the Philadelphia papers. The beautiful instructor and the handsome young artist made a striking couple and the press gushed their praises.

Early in their marriage, in fact only four days after their wedding, Lydia learned a very important lesson. Truly great artists have a common denominator in their character traits: they develop tunnel vision where their art is concerned to the detriment of those that love them. Parrish left his young bride in Philadelphia only two days after their wedding and departed to visit European salons and galleries in Paris and Brussels, where he hoped to exhibit. Sitting in the moonlight in the gardens of the Tuilleries, the artist penned a longing note that accompanied a lovely watercolor of the gardens in the moonlight, saying, "A wonderful evening to be alone... and wish one weren't."

When Parrish returned from Paris, the couple moved into their first apartment in Philadelphia located at Twelfth and Spruce Streets. Parrish had a small studio on Broad Street, near the Pennsylvania Academy where he worked during those first years. In November 1895 the artist designed and constructed his own easel, which is today known as the Radnor Easel, for Radnor, Philadelphia, where it was built (Ludwig Catalogue #36). It reflected his practicality, for both sides of the easel could be used simultaneously for paintings of different sizes, each of which could be raised or lowered at will without disturbing the other side. Intricate designs carved alongside both panels adorn the easel where the artist created so many of his works. Parrish later created a second, taller, more elaborate easel with ornate little urns sitting at its edge (Ludwig Catalogue #78) known as the Windsor Easel, since it was created in Windsor, Vermont in 1896.[5]

At first Lydia continued her teaching in order to help support her husband and his art work. She probably hoped to prove Howard Pyle wrong in his warning to his female art students. Although Pyle strongly advocated a woman's right to a professional career, he also dogmatically preached that a female artist could not easily combine the role of wife and mother with the demands of professional illustration or art. "When a woman marries" Pyle once said, "that's the end of her as a professional!"[6]

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