Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



From the association for the Curtis murals, Parrish was also asked to design a forty-foot-high mural at the entrance of the building. The artist repeatedly declined until Bok, after visiting Parrish's home and viewing his magnificent garden facing Mount Ascutney, convinced the artist to paint an oil depicting his garden and to have Lois Comfort Tiffany translate his vision into a magnificent favrile art-glass version containing nearly one million pieces of glass! The artist acquiesced and the spectacular Dream Garden was born, incorporating many of Parrish's garden features, his stone walls, the mountain, The Oaks, the cascading apple and spiraea blossoms and (after much lobbying on Parrish's part) a beautiful reflecting pool in front of the mosaic.[45]

The Curtis murals are unique in the fact that except for one figure (which Parrish modeled for) everyone of the over 200 figures both male and female were modeled by Sue Lewin. The murals' provocative titles, such as Vale of Love, Sweet Nothings, Roses for Romance, A Call to Joy and Love's Pilgrimage, may give an indication as to what Parrish and Susan shared during that period of time. According to family correspondence years later, that time marked a period when Parrish and Lydia were having marital difficulties shortly after their last child was born. When queried about the meaning of the titles, the artist always disavowed any romantic significance by saying: ... what is the meaning of it all? It doesn't mean an earthly thing, not even a ghost of an allegory. The endeavor is to present a painting which will give pleasure without tiring the intellect: something beautiful to look upon. A good place to be in. Nothing more."

This feverish mural activity prompted Mrs. Whitney's architects to resurrect the idea of her murals in 1912. Busy with completing the Curtis murals, Parrish was not able to begin work on her murals right away, but thanked his patron in advance for granting him full use of a brilliant color palette. He wrote to Mrs. Whitney early during the project: "Thank you for allowing me to use colors as rich and deep as you please. I had always wanted to do so, yet was never allowed because of the color capabilities of our lithographers today. Now that I have done it, I don't think I'll ever go back."[47]

Parrish completed the works for the first two walls in 1914. On September 4 of that year, he wrote to Mrs. Whitney's secretary indicating that the first two walls (four panels) of the murals, each measuring five feet six by eight feet six, were ready but that the artist would appreciate receiving payment before sending them. Shortly thereafter, Parrish received the first payment of $10,000 toward the murals, which were simply named after their locations: the Whitney East Wall Panels and the Whitney South Wall Panels. The next two panels were delivered without problems after receipt of the next payment installment in May 1916 and were named the Whitney West Wall Panels.

The final panel and Parrish's most painterly work is the longest single panel mural by the artist. It was completed and installed in 1918. The North Wall Panel, an oil on canvas measuring five feet six by eighteen feet six, is the richest in detail and color palette. The golden tones in the fabrics rival Vermeer's gold tones, while the taffetas and velvets are so realistic that they beg the viewer's touch (please don't!). Despite the fact that the mural would be hung approximately nine feet above the ground, the artist took great pains in the costuming, using brushes that might have had a single hair to depict twenty-three lines in a lowly hem. He was certainly creating a masterpiece different from any illustrative mural done thus far.

Unlike the Curtis mural, which just shows Susan in various poses and costumes with a limited color palette (Curtis planned to do prints and had to use the capabilities of lithographers of the day of using no more than four color separations), the North Wall Mural is a microcosm of Parrish's world in super-rich Technicolor. Friends from the Cornish Colony -- authors, writers and painters with the ubiquitous Susan Lewin liberally sprinkled throughout the composition -- appear as young people attending a costume party situated in what architecturally appears as Mrs. Whitney's arched and pillared home.

The ensemble of approximately sixty-plus figures is arranged in a tableau worthy of Parrish's ability as a charade player par excellence. Parrish uses the face of his wife Lydia as the central figure, the hostess attired in cool blues (the only one in cool tones) greeting her guests in a controlled and proper manner. The artist surrounds the figure of his wife with figures of Susan posed both as invited guest and as serving person. He includes a diminutive figure of Susan sitting at the feet of her mistress in a drab, Cinderella-like costume (with what appears almost as an inverted scarlet A in her bosom). His charade-like revelations do not stop there... one of the serving maids bringing a tray to the hostess appears to be sporting the classic Italian "thumb my lip" at you gesture. Very revealing!

The murals remained in the Whitney household until 1998, when they were removed from the wall by the New York firm of Alan M. Farancz Painting and Conservation Studio to be cleaned and mounted. When they were readied, the Whitney family commissioned this author to show them publicly for the first time, at the Cornish Colony Museum, near the Parrish studio where they were created. It is a great honor to show them together once again in this traveling Parrish exhibition.

Word of the Whitney murals spread quickly. In Rochester, New York, two wealthy industrialists George Eastman and George Todd contacted the artist in 1920 and commissioned a mural to be placed in the Rochester music school theater. Together, Eastman and Todd joined philanthropic forces to found the Rochester Philharmonic, which was slated to perform in the school's new theater. The men formed an executive committee of two for the selection of the art that was to adorn the theater. They chose Parrish to execute the commission.

The painting was to depict music or musicians playing. At first Parrish thought that perhaps the Fuller sisters, Dorothy, Rosalind and Cynthia, three talented as well as beautiful traveling musicians from Dorset, England, who had performed in the Parrish's music room in 1915, might be suitable subjects. Since Parrish's time-consuming painting depended on the models being currently available or at least photographed in pose, it is doubtful that the painter could pull the deed off without the presence of the Fuller women when the work was commissioned.


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