Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



1. Early Works: 1895-1910


Besides the Easter cover for Harper's, Parrish had begun receiving orders for covers for different issues of Harper's Magazine as well as for some early posters and covers that were done in 1896 for Century Magazine. The Pennsylvania Academy had commissioned the Poster Show and the Mask and Wig Club had ordered a poster of their own, Very Little Red Riding Hood (1897). Another well-known cover that Parrish used for both Outing Magazine (September 1906), and as an illustration and end piece for the poem "The Finest Song" by Robert Burns Wilson (Metropolitan Magazine, January 1906), is an oil Parrish named The Last Rose of Summer. The artist used his own face and figure to portray a youth in Grecian costume contemplating a rose he holds in his hand. The figure is shown sitting below one of the massive oaks on the artist's property, flanked by two plaster lions the artist had molded in his studio.

Parrish's early important commissions, however, came in the form of illustrations for three very important books: Frank L. Baum's Mother Goose in Prose (1897), his first book commission; The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame (1899); and Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York (1900). It is interesting to note that as early as 1896, Parrish dropped his first name of Fred and began signing his work as Maxfield Parrish.

According to Sylvia Yount, who curated a comprehensive Parrish museum exhibition for the Pennsylvania Academy (1999-2000), the artist and first-time writer Frank L. Baum, who later penned the famous Wizard of Oz book, were aptly matched. Baum was embarking on a successful career in merchandizing strategies that combined fairy tales, theater and technology, which was similar to Parrish's growing market savvy around this time. Such a comparison suggests to Ms. Yount that there is a very real important link between fantasy and consumer desire that partly accounted for the artist's popular appeal. [7]

As one critic, James B. Carrington, pointed out in his article for The Book Buyer, it is important to note that there was a definite link between Parrish's nursery rhyme themes and the serious treatment of the subject from the child's point of view. Parrish connected not only with children but also with adults who were charmed into remembering what it was like to see things from the perspective of childhood.[8]

Mother Goose in Prose, with its historical flavor, led directly to another of Parrish's important book commissions, Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York, which was first printed in 1809 and reprinted with Parrish's images in 1900.[9]

Commissions for book and magazine illustrations were coming. With the financial help of his father Stephen, Parrish and Lydia felt able to purchase acreage in 1898 on top of a hill in Plainfield, New Hampshire, overlooking Mt. Ascutney. Lydia was understandably reluctant to leave her career, friends and family for the hinterlands of New Hampshire and the one-room cabin that her young husband initially built. As much as she could, she remained in Philadelphia, teaching during the time Parrish was busy with his work, as well as with building a permanent home on the property that they had named "The Oaks" for the magnificent trees next to their home. Whenever she was not teaching, she would ride the train from Philadelphia to Windsor, Vermont, where she would be picked up by her husband. While the house was being built the couple stayed at Northcote, boarding with Parrish's parents.

In a pivotal event in their lives, soon after the couple moved into their newly constructed home and were readying to settle down, Lydia received an urgent telegram in Philadelphia from Stephen Parrish notifying her that her husband had been taken seriously ill and required her presence. Lydia immediately boarded a train to Windsor, and after that never again returned to her teaching position at Drexel or the private students she had been tutoring.

Parrish had indeed become dreadfully ill with tuberculosis, which at the time was still a little understood, highly contagious and deadly illness. At a time when few spouses remained with their partners during the infectious stage of the disease, the young bride braved the fierce New Hampshire winter in the little cabin which, given Parrish's building genius with tools and his fascination with architecture, had now expanded into four-room rustic splendor. Lydia followed her husband to a Saranac Lake sanitarium for treatment, which was funded with a five hundred dollar check by his best friend and neighbor, American writer Winston Churchill (1871-1947). The two men had become fast friends. They were approximately the same age, and Churchill and his bride Mabel Harlakenden had been married the same year as the Parrishes. They had also settled in the area in the same year, 1898.[10]


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