Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



In the summer of 1920, Parrish hosted Ruth Bryan Owen and her daughter Ruth (Kitty) Owen. Kitty posed for a number of paintings for the artist, including Daybreak, Canyon, Spring and Lady Violetta in the Knave of Hearts. For the Eastman mural, Parrish posed Kitty for the well-known figure on the left side of the composition.

The two-person executive committee (Eastman and Todd) that commissioned the work suggested that perhaps the pretty Todd nieces might be suitable models. What artist refuses a prospective client who wishes to include his nearest and dearest in the composition? Accordingly, they may have been the other two subjects depicted in Interlude. In a letter forwarded to the author by Marjorie Searl of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, Elizabeth Brayer writes: "Dear Margie, ... There are at least three persons who recall being told by the Todd sisters that they were the models for Interlude. "

That Parrish used Kitty Owen is unquestionable. It is likely that he also used at least two of the three Todd sisters, Peggy and Sally Todd most likely. It is certainly one of the more successful depictions of portraiture in a Parrish mural, and because it was also reproduced and distributed as lithographs in both vertical and horizontal formats, it is one of the most celebrated.

Parrish's last mural commission came from the prestigious du Pont family. Earlier in this catalogue I mentioned the first business transaction that had taken place between two thirteen-year-old boys, Pierre du Pont and Fred Maxfield Parrish. By the early 1930s Pierre and his brother Irenée had reached pinnacles in their careers, corresponding with the adulation and spectacular success that Parrish had achieved by being named in print as one of the most reproduced artists of that time. Irenée du Pont had just finished construction of his magnificent chateau located on top of a hill in Delaware's Brandywine River Valley. Parrish was first approached by " Irenée about a mural to go behind the organ well of the magnificent Aolian organ the industrialist had installed in the music room of his residence in Granogue, Delaware. The approach was characterized by Seth Mattingly in his article on the subject as:

When du Pont first contacted the premier painter of skies, mountains and trees to create a mural for him he was categorically turned down by the artist with a no-nonsense "I'm much too busy" the first time. Then began months of the jovial sparring between the two that these famous friends so enjoyed. Kindred personalities (both possessed a great wit) they made their negotiations a jousting match in which buyer persistence eventually overcame seller resistance.[49]

Du Pont waited a year before approaching Parrish again. He wrote:

Dear Mr. Parrish,
Some time ago, I had the temerity to write you to ask whether you would care to take a commission to execute a painting for the living room in my house at Granogue, Delaware to which you replied that you did not care to accept commissions. The place where I desired a picture of yours is still vacant and I am wondering if perchance you would change your mind on the subject ...[50]

Parrish had just made the decision to stop his figurative work altogether and concentrate on what he most loved, painting landscapes. However, this time he accepted du Pont's commission and after ascertaining the proposed placement of the mural, size and eventual price, he agreed to travel to Granogue to inspect the site. Parrish was delighted with du Pont's suggestions and the beauty of the area and accepted the commission with the proviso that it would take some time to complete. A year later, in March 28, 1932, he wrote to the industrialist saying that the "sketch", a fully finished oil on board measuring twenty-three by forty-two inches, was to be shipped for his approval.[51]

Du Pont liked the sketch so much that he asked Parrish if he could purchase it, but the artist declined. The Study for the du Pont Mural was placed on the south wall of the artist's dining room of the main house at The Oaks. Later, the artist placed it over his fireplace in the studio. For years, it occupied. this place of honor and was pointed out to visitors. "Because of the prominence given it, a guest once asked if the artist regarded the resulting mural as his major work. To which the artist replied: 'It is not the largest of my murals, but it's one of my best, I think, and Irenée seemed to like it. '"[52]

The completed mural was finished in 1933. The majestic scene, executed on three panels measuring seven by twelve feet in total, was delivered and personally installed by the sixty-three-year-old artist. Unbeknown to the painter, the mural, which was completed during a very cold winter in New Hampshire, had not dried properly. As time went by, small oil chips began to curl and peel away. After several attempts by the artist to repair the damage, he finally decided to "live up to my unspoken warranty" and replace the entire mural! Parrish theorized that the oil-resin medium he had used during a very cold winter in New Hampshire had not dried properly. As time went by, the paint film began to crack, causing small chips of gesso and paint to curl away from the supporting canvas-covered panels, so that increasing areas of the white canvas below were revealed. At the age of eighty-three, the artist began the arduous task of painting a brand new mural, this time omitting the canvas interlayer and using 3,000-watt lamps to continuously heat the mural room in his studio so that the work would not be damaged again by the extremely cold temperatures.

The new work was heavily insured and placed in a brand new crate designed and constructed by Parrish. It was delivered to du Pont in August 1953. Parrish wrote to du Pont and said that he had difficulty in getting it insured until they inspected the superb crate he had constructed. He teasingly added that he had convinced insurers that he made better shipping crates than paintings, and thus the second mural was readied for delivery. Parrish received the first 1933 du Pont Mural back from Irenée du Pont, and he stored it in the attic of his mural painting room, where I discovered it after purchasing the Parrish estate in 1978. Although du Pont was determined to pay for the second mural, the artist refused the payment, stating, "There is an implied warranty that a commissioned work should last a lifetime. There is to be no charge."[53]

Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner from the Conservation Department of the University of Delaware completes the latest chapter in the history of this mural in the last section of this catalogue.

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