Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



This section demonstrates Parrish's ability and technique by showing some of his photographs done in preparation for works prior to painting. There is one image missing in Ludwig's listing and recording of these photos. The missing glass slide was found stored in a hidden secret panel of the artist's darkroom. It was noticed by a telephone installer when he was laying phone lines for the Parrish Museum, which I founded in his home in 1978. The technician brought me the little four- by five-inch Kodak box that he had found, which Parrish commonly used for storing his glass slides. I unwrapped and opened it and found a beautiful artistic nude.

Parrish had no problem in photographing himself in the nude for Potpourri and Dinkey Bird, or in photographing his daughter Jean for paintings such as Daybreak, Evening, Stars or Dreaming. To the artist it seemed the most natural of things. Sylvia Yount offers this explanation in her book Maxfield Parrish 1870-1966:

Parrish's photographic study of his eleven-year-old daughter Jean, posing nude for Daybreak, recalls the work of the late- twentieth-century artist Sally Mann, whose photographs of her children have created a controversy that would have been foreign to Parrish's culture. While Parrish never fully acknowledged the sexual appeal of his art, what Nina Auerbach has described as the "power and erotic energy within a dream of purity" surely played a key part in the popularity of such works such as Daybreak. [25]

There were no hang-ups in the artistic Parrish household about the beauty of the nude figure. Both Parrish and Lydia, as well as most of their artistic contemporaries in the Cornish Colony, had studied with nude models and saw that as a natural aspect of their art. In the case of the nude photo of Susan, Parrish evidently had great reservations about revealing its existence, and thus hid it in a panel in his darkroom. He of the Quaker and Puritan sensibilities was perhaps afraid of having that intimate relationship discovered or of having to acknowledge that he may have used her as his muse. The artist and the model opted never to reveal that he had seen her undressed, despite living with her for almost sixty years in her role as studio helper, model and housekeeper. [Parrish's cousin, Anne Parrish Titzell, the well-known Connecticut author, wrote about the relationship in her 1929 book The Methodist Faun published by Harper's.[26]

The bulk of Parrish's usage of photography was done in the preparation of works prior to sending them to clients or publishers; such works included the April Book Buyer cover and the Study for the Pied Piper. I know of only two works that were actual painted photographs, Villa Caprarola and Lute Players. The earliest example of a Parrish painted photograph is found in the correspondence between the artist and J. H. Chapin of Charles Scribner in 1899:

Dear Mr. Chapin,
I herewith submit the April Book Buyer cover. Tomorrow I will send you a photograph of it showing just where the light brown tint goes. It is somewhat indicated in the drawing, but rather faint so as not to interfere with the reproduction, which I intended should be line plate.[27]

In the correspondence with the Palace Hotel during his preparation for the magnificent Pied Piper Mural, Parrish was asked to submit a sketch of the work he was completing for the hotel so that the colors he was using could be integrated into the decorating scheme. When I purchased The Oaks, one of my children made a discovery in the attic of the artist's studio. Rolled up in a small tube with the return address of the Palace Hotel was what was later identified as a photograph of the mural sitting on his easel; Parrish had painted over this photograph to enable him to send the staff an idea of what the color palette of the finished work would be. The work was later identified as a "painted photograph".

The two best-known and most well-documented actual photographs that Parrish is known to have painted and used as finished works are the ones used for Villa Caprarola and the Lute Players. Villa Caprarola provides us with a fascinating glimpse at the behind-scenes work for the preparation of the book, with wonderful tidbits of correspondence between Parrish and the famous writer. This is the only known work to exist for which the artwork exists only as a painted photograph.



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