Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



Jean was the only Parrish child to follow in her parents' artistic footsteps. As an adult she lived and worked a great deal of her life painting the Southwest and the area around Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she built her own home and studio (often doing the actual building herself). After her divorce, she successfully raised her only child Pidge as a single parent. There is a street in Albuquerque named after her.

Ruth (Kitty) Owen, the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan, was a favorite model of the artist. During their summer visit to the Parrishes' home in 1920, Kitty posed for several of the famous paintings that Parrish had in the works. Her story is covered in more detail later in this catalogue. Besides posing as the reclining figure for Daybreak, Kitty posed for several major magazine covers and prints such as Morning (1922), Canyon (1923) and Wild Geese (1923). She is one of the figures in the Eastman mural Interlude (1922) and all of the figures of Lady Violetta in Knave of Hearts.

Important figures of their day thought nothing of posing for Parrish. In the section on murals, we explore John Jacob Astor's venture into Parrish's wicked humor when he posed for the figure of King Cole. Mabel Harlakenden, the wife of his friend Winston Churchill, as well as the author himself, posed for Parrish. Many of his friends and members of the Cornish Colony joined the artist in posing for Mrs. Whitney's North Wall Mural. The comely daughters of the famed jurist Learned Hand posed for Hilltop (1926), Contentment (1927) and Waterfall (1930). Peggy and Sally Todd, the nieces of George Eastman and daughters of Harry Todd, the two men who commissioned the Interlude Mural for the Eastman Theater in Rochester, appear to have been the other two figures besides Kitty Owen who posed for this famous work.

Some of the local young women, such as Arlene (Jenney) Wilson and Kathleen (Philbrick) Read, were models who had their fifteen minutes of fame by posing for the famous artist. Kathleen had the unfortunate experience of seeing one of the works for which she posed, Moonlight (1934), wiped out when the artist decided to convert it into a pure landscape. "He contacted me by a note," wrote Kathleen Philbrick Read, Hand said that he had decided to paint my figure out and make the scene totally into a landscape. It was sure nice of him to let me know, beforehand, though. "[34]

Two of the men employed by the artist to help him with the building and upkeep of his beloved estate were occasionally also pressed into modeling. Parrish's beloved and laconic handyman George Ruggles, whom the artist considered a close personal friend and almost an alter ego, posed for a number of covers and ads. Kimball Daniels, a young neighbor from the Freeman Farm who was married to Sue Lewin's sister, was also pressed into service. Daniels suffered an unfortunate accident while working for Parrish, which broke his neck. He died at The Oaks on April 1913.[37]

Without question, the bulk of Parrish's figurative work was posed for by Susan Lewin, who was to become his muse, model, studio assistant, costume designer, housekeeper and perhaps lover. She came into his life in 1905 and remained with him until 1960, when she left him to marry her childhood sweetheart, since even then, after Lydia's death in 1953, Parrish had not formalized their relationship. The impressionable sixteen year old recommended to the household by Stephen Parrish came in initially as an au pair to help Lydia care for Dillwyn while she awaited the arrival of their next child. Lydia and her husband had chosen not to begin their family until the artist was cured of the tuberculosis that had robbed him of his health. Lydia was in her early thirties when she began her first pregnancy and was close to forty when Jean, their final child, was born.

Pregnancies started relatively late in her life had robbed the handsome beauty not only of her figure, but also of essential calcium and nutrients, which caused her grave medical and dental problems. Parrish the artist, who had at first been so drawn to this beautiful woman, must have been saddened to see her figure and physical beauty damaged. The fact that Lydia was often unwell and perhaps very tired was noted by Ellen Axon Wilson, President Wilson's wife, who was in residence in Cornish at the President's summer house. She wrote to her husband:

I am just back from a visit to the Maxfield Parrishes and from posing afterwards for Mr. Vonnoh. The posing was interrupted by a storm, leaving while it lasted no light to paint by.
The Maxfield Parrish ménage is charming in every respect. In the first place they are all so good-looking! He is really a beautiful young man and charming, too, and Mrs. Parrish is lovely, with deep dark eyes, and a sweet rather wan look like a young Madonna. She has four beautiful young children, and is evidently a devoted mother. She was an artist herself! The house is set high on a hill and is altogether fascinating -- very artistic and at the same time unpretentious. The garden is a delightful tangle like the Boxwood garden. They have a few magnificent trees -- and a really stupendous view -- too panoramic to paint, of course, but a glorious scene. Altogether an ideal artist home. And they live there all the year round. It must be very wonderful in winter.[38]

And then again later in August:

My own darling, ...
I have just returned from a little dinner at the Stephen Parrish's. Helen [Helen Bones, Mrs. Wilson's secretary] and I were invited and we had a delightful time. There were just that perfect old dear, Stephen himself, the sweet young cousin who keeps house for him (Anne Parrish), the adorable Maxfield (Mrs. Max was not well) and Judge and Mrs. Hand.[39]

Parrish saw in Susan some of the same physical characteristics that had drawn him to his wife fifteen years before. He may have fallen in love again with the concept of perennial youth that Susan represented. Her personality was infinitely more pliant than his wife's and she presented no competition for him as an artist as his wife had done. Among the famous paintings that bear her likeness are Princess Parizade and the Singing Tree (1906), The Pied Piper (1909), Pierrot's Serenade (1909), Griselda (1910), Lantern Bearers (1910), The Idiot (1910), Rubaiyat (1916), Garden of Allah (1917), Primitive Man (1920), Polly Put the Kettle On (1923) and all the figures of the knave in Knave of Hearts (1923).

Susan also posed for most of the figures in the sixteen murals done for Curtis Publishing (1911-16), a total of over 200 figures both male and female, as well as for the bulk of the figures for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's murals (1912-16), which are discussed in the following section.

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