Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



The year before, knowing that their friend's health was deteriorating, Lydia and Parrish, along with about sixty-five other members of the Cornish Colony, had participated in a celebration of Saint-Gaudens' arrival to the area twenty years before with a play titled "A Masque of Ours: The Gods and the Golden Bowl". The painters, writers, poets, sculptors and their children all dressed in Grecian costumes of the gods of Olympus. As might be expected, Parrish played a major role in all the preparations. His two gilded masks held the curtains that opened onto a temple-like setting. He also had a starring role as Chiron the centaur. Parrish designed and built his complicated costume. With his mechanic skills he developed a contraption tied to his ankles that moved the centaur's hind legs when the artist moved his own legs. Augusta and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were wheeled into the esplanade in a white Roman chariot and crowned with laurels. Hidden behind the trees members of the Boston Orchestra directed by Arthur Whiting, also a member of the colony, played music that Whiting had composed for the occasion. Poet and playwright Percy Mackay, dressed as the god Hermes for the occasion, composed the lines and tribute to Saint-Gaudens.

The sculptor was touched beyond words. As one of his final gifts to the art colony that he had helped build, Saint-Gaudens created three large bronze plaques listing the names of the participants. He also distributed miniature reductions done in silver commemorating the event among the friends who had taken part in the celebration. The sculptor died shortly thereafter, in 1907, and was mourned by the American nation as one of the best classic sculptors of his age.[18]

The years between 1906 and 1911 were professionally and personally very active for Maxfield Parrish. Lydia had given birth in short succession to another son, Stephen (1909), and finally to their long-awaited only daughter, Jean (1911). Parrish had been elected to membership in the National Academy of Design and in Phi Beta Kappa.

In 1908 Parrish was asked to illustrate two prestigious books, The Arabian Nights and The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. Many of the images from these books, such as Landing of the Brazen Boatmen from Arabian Nights and Pierrot's Serenade from Golden Treasury, were reproduced as important art prints. Parrish completed the Landing of the Brazen Boatmen as one of the twelve illustrations for Scribner's Arabian Nights edited by Kate Wiggin and Nora Smith. This painting also won him the coveted Beck Award from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which was given for best picture in the academy's annual exhibition.

John La Farge (1835-1910), one of the most important American painters, teachers and muralists of the day, wrote to Scribner in 1910, shortly before his death, about his admiration for the images Parrish had created for them in the Arabian Nights:

... and the few paintings and the few colored prints of the drawings of Mr. Parrish transport one suddenly into the proper fairyland. They exist, they have been seen by the mind's eye. Thus the grappling with the fantastic as in the Princess Parizade and the Story of the Talking Bird where the impossibilities are treated as realities; the very wonderfully realistic picture of the boat, with its twelve armed pirates on deck, coming toward us on the dark edge of the sea, is astonishing as imagination, while we see it coming upon us as a reality... . I know of no artist of today, no matter how excellent, with such a frank imagination, within a beautiful form, as is the gift of Mr. Parrish. I hope that in other ways we shall see more and more of him. Let him know all that I tell you, when you have a chance.
Very Truly Yours,
John La Farge [19]

Parrish responded to La Farge early in April:

My dear Mr. La Farge,
The letter you wrote to Scribner about the Arabian Nights pictures I have had before me for a long time and not a day goes by that I do not wish I knew how to tell you what a very great thing it was to me. From a man like you such an expression is the biggest thing that can happen in my life: it is the kind of appreciation that leaves one generally and deeply happy and for some strange reason, very humble. I know perfectly well the pictures do not deserve such notice, but it does not make my gratitude and wonderment at my great fortune any the less. [20]

Following his 1909 success with Scribner's Arabian Nights, Parrish scored another major book triumph by illustrating Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonderbook of Tanglewood Tales, published in 1910 by Duffield and Company. The cover of the book illustrated what became one of the major icons of Parrish's book illustrations: the oil on canvas laid down on board titled Circe's Palace. Sue Lewin, as the sorceress, bends over a caldron whose highly polished surface gleams eerily in the half light, as she plots to turn men into beasts. All the images in the book were fairly large oils averaging forty by thirty-two inches in size. This was one of the last instances that the artist used canvas laid down on board to strengthen and safeguard the paintings. The only other oils on canvas that he would do after that were for the large Whitney and Curtis murals.


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