Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



3. The Models


Parrish used a number of models for his figurative work between 1895 and 1934, when he announced in his famous Associated Press interview: I'm done with girls on rocks! I've painted them for thirteen years and I could paint them and sell them for thirteen more. That's the peril of the commercial art game. It tempts a man to repeat himself. it's s an awful thing to get to be a rubber stamp. I'm quitting my rut now while I'm still able.[31]

Before this period, Parrish had taken a page from many of the old masters (Rembrandt and Rubens to name just two), who at the beginning of their careers used their faces and figures extensively in their paintings. There were three reasons for this: the model's face and shape were infinitely well known to the artist, the model was easily accessible and the price was right (no modeling fees had to be taken into consideration). During his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy, the young artist did a series of twenty-five extremely beautiful models from the nude for his men's day life class. All of these images are documented in a small catalogue written by Virginia Colby in 1976 and titled In the Beginning.

Thomas P. Anchutz, one of Parrish's teachers at the academy, taught painting, drawing and modeling there for almost thirty years. He is credited with teaching his students the wonderful observation skills that are needed in the study of anatomy, in order to develop a skillful control of the initial drawing. Parrish's future bride Lydia Austin was the model for his first commercial endeavor, the Harper's Bazaar Easter cover (1895). Lydia posed as the figure for the two pre-Raphaelite figures flanking each side of the composition. This was the commission that first launched Parrish's artistic career.[32]

Before their children were born, Lydia appeared in many of the early covers painted by the artist for Scribner and Century Magazine, such as October 1900 (1898), Madonna and Child (Christmas 1898), The Duchess at Prayer (1899), Story of Ann Powell (1900), The Milkmaid (1901) and The Grape Gatherer (1904). The manner in which Parrish depicted Lydia -- as mother, maiden, Madonna, bountiful earth mother -- attests to the respect and admiration the artist demonstrated for his wife. Lydia appears to symbolize these ideals for her husband. The artist thus effectively placed her on an impossibly high pedestal, raising the bar of expectation perhaps out of reach of a mere mortal.

Besides posing for the nude figure of Potpourri, Air Castles and Dinkey Bird, which I addressed earlier in the section on photography, Parrish posed for many magazine covers and stories dealing with both serious and humorous subjects. Last Rose of Summer (1899) for Outing Magazine; The Cardinal Archbishop (1901) and Vigil at Arms (1904) for Scribner, as well as the exquisite luminous Winter produced in 1906 are some examples of his serious side. The artist also reveled in his keen sense of humor by mugging outrageously for the camera in preparation for many of the paintings in which he used himself as model. He is the perennial child cavorting through make-believe and having a riotous good time. He wants to make his audience enjoy his escapades into imagination, but he also wants to demonstrate that it is his artistry that beckons, beguiles us and keeps us asking for more.

Parrish was the model for both the guards and the court jester in John Jacob Astor's mural Old King Cole (1906) and the central figure in Pied Piper (1909). He appeared on at least twelve covers for Life and probably twenty covers for Collier's. Parrish modeled for Jack Frost in the last cover that he did for this magazine.[33]

He dressed in drag to model for the figure of Mother Goose in a Fisk Tire advertisement. He is the male figure in Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater (1918) done for the Ferry Seeds Company, and his face played several comic figures in Louise Saunders' 1925 children's book classic The Knave of Hearts.

Parrish also modeled for two of his friends from the Cornish Colony. Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) was elected as an associate member of the prestigious National Academy of Design and submitted a portrait of his artist friend as his necessary entry requirement. He urged him to pose, promising not to knock out any of his teeth or to tattoo the initials A.N .A. (Associate Member of the National Academy) on his chest. Cox posed the youthful illustrator in left profile, arms across his chest, wearing shirtsleeves. Parrish later even offered to build the frame for the submission.

Ten years later another artist friend, the sculptor Paul Manship (1885-1966), created a medal commemorating Parrish with his image on one side and a flying unicorn on the other. It was left at the Parrish outdoor mailbox on December 24 as a surprise Christmas gift to the artist.

The Parrish children were soon drafted and eagerly recruited as (sometimes unwilling) models for their artist father. His first born, Dillwyn Parrish, had inherited his mother's dark good looks and splendid eyes. His brother Max Jr. had his father's blue eyes and the tow hair of his youth. Both Dillwyn and Max Jr. posed for two of the children in the Pied Piper. Dillwyn (who had an uncanny ability to draw intricate trains and locomotive engines at a very early age) may have suffered from an early form of dyslexia, which he eventually! conquered. His early travails and struggles in the home school room are sympathetically memorialized by Parrish on several Collier's covers: Alphabet (1909), Penmanship (1910) and Arithmetic (1911). He was a winning and irresistible model whom every local woman would have liked to either mother or romance (and later probably did). The youngster also posed for the cover of the book Peterkin (1912).

Both Max Jr. (Peter Piper, 1919) and daughter Jean (Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, 1923 and Jack and the Beanstalk, 1923) posed for Ferry Seed ads. Jean, the blonde, blue-eyed dynamo who combined her mother's great bone structure, soulful eyes and independent, willful temperament with her father's artistic genes and stubbornness, was truly the apple of her father's eye. Being the only girl in a family of three older brothers, she learned to hold her own in any situation.[34]

Young Jean was the Parrish child her artist father used most frequently to model for him. We seldom see the third child, Stephen, modeling for any painting. Stephen appears to have :connected with his father not through his interest in his father's art, but through his thorough understanding and enjoyment of mechanics and how things worked. Both father and son spent many happy hours tinkering in the elder Parrish's very complete mechanic shop. Both were adept mechanics, who enjoyed building things from scratch and fixing whatever problems their many cars might develop.[35]

Ten-year-old Jean appears for the first time in her father's work in 1921. She modeled for Mary, Mary Quite Contrary and for the classic oil titled Evening. In 1922, she was immortalized as the eleven-year-old nymphet smiling innocently at the reclining figure of her friend Ruth (Kitty) Owen in Daybreak, the painting that Parrish referred to as his magnum opus. This was also the year in which she posed as the figure of the Prince in Knave of Hearts.

Her father later used his teenage daughter for the figure of the virginal nude in Stars (1926) and Dreaming (1928). Just before leaving for Smith College, she posed for Ecstasy (1930), the famous Mazda calendar painting depicting the form of a young woman posing at the brink of a precipice, exalted by the beauty of the world beneath and around her and perhaps unaware of the dangers that could befall her were she to stumble... yet fully enjoying her moment of glory and daring in the sun. Perhaps this painting symbolized the father's hopes and worries for his ambitious child ready to embark on her own life, away from the watchful eye of the doting parent.


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