Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



Parrish accepted a commission for a series of paintings to decorate the tops of chocolate candy boxes for Clarence Crane. Undoubtedly, Crane had been influenced by the success of the Arabian Nights images that Parrish had done for Scribner. The paintings had been reproduced with the existing four-color lithographic process by Dodge Publishing, who had negotiated for the rights not with the artist, but with Scribner, who was the original publisher of the book. Accordingly, in the period 1915 to 1918, Parrish created three very beautiful and imaginative works based on the request by Crane, but left to the artist's interpretation. They were Rubaiyat (1916), Cleopatra (1917) and Garden of Allah (1918).

Thrilled with the impact and success these high-end gift boxes had brought, Crane decided to reproduce them as fine-art prints that could be offered with an order blank in the candy box. He neglected to apprise the artist of his intention. In a series of back and forth letters on file at Dartmouth Special Collections, the artist voiced his displeasure and pointed out to the candy maker that he had not bought reproduction rights to these three images other than for the decoration of the boxes. Despite the fact that Crane had increased the amount he was paying Parrish for each subsequent image, the artist chose to end the relationship in 1918 and seek a publisher who would market art prints that Parrish would create for the sole purpose of reproduction. This way, he could own not only the painting but also the reproduction rights, which would bring him commissions directly. He wrote to Crane what amounted to a parting of the ways letter:

Dear Friend Crane,
... some publishers divide the royalties on the sale of prints with me. They take one half, I take the other. I only wish to goodness I had the same arrangement with the sale of the Arabian Night prints. They have made a fortune for the Dodge Publishing Company and not a bit do I get out of it! In those days I was entirely satisfied and getting a royalty never occurred to me. If you have this (Garden of Allah) reproduced by that bum lithography I doubt if you will sell any of them! I want seventeen color separations, not just four! ... Whether or not I can go on with the kind of work I've been doing for you is a question I will have to decide later. At the present writing it does not seem very good business to paint the things when I can make twice as much by reproducing them myself. Art is long, but business is business.[56]

After creating the full palette murals for Mrs. Whitney, Parrish was buoyed by what he had seen could be done when he was allowed to use a full range of colors. As he had said in a letter to Mrs. Whitney during the preparation of her murals: "I've always wanted to do it [to use full range of his color palette]. Now that I've been allowed to do it, I'm never going back![57]

The artist decided to take a step that would change the way lithography was handled in the twentieth century. He eschewed the four-color separations that photo-lithographers had been using since the latter part of the nineteenth century, and challenged his lithographers to find ways to show as many as sixteen and seventeen color separations to bring the prints closer to the spectacular and intricate layering technique and glazing of his paintings. Parrish refused all entreaties from lithographers to stop varnishing between layers of oil This proved a stumbling block to most lithographers who wanted to increase the number of separations photographically.

Two lithographers rose to the challenge: Forbes Lithography, who reproduced the series of calendars for the General Electric Mazda Lamps from 1918 to 1934 (the paintings had been created between 1917 and 1932), and Brett Lithography, who produced the Reinthal Newman House of Art fine-art prints. Of these, it is generally acknowledged by print experts that Forbes reproduced the highest quality images for Parrish works. The values of these images bear this out. Most Parrish prints sell today in the hundreds of dollars ($300-$750), but Forbes Mazda calendars such as Spirit of the Night, Prometheus and Primitive Man sell in the thousands ($2,000-$5,000).

The sale of these prints created a fever pitch for the acquisition of Parrish's work never realized in the United States to that point. Sales of these series increased from 400,000 copies printed of Dawn in 1918 and Spirit of the Night in 1919 to 750,000 for Prometheus in 1920, 1,250,000 of Venetian Lamplighters in 1924 and 1,500,000 for Dreamlight.

In total, there were twenty million copies of Mazda calendars printed -- a very lucrative endeavor for the artist, who received commissions on each print sold. In 1931, General Electric estimated that if each one of the regular twenty million calendars was seen by one person each day, they would have delivered seven billion product messages for Edison Mazda in the period between 1918 and 1934. This commission, along with his book and art-print illustrations, was instrumental in creating icon status for Maxfield Parrish. Three images in particular were exceedingly popular: Enchantment (1926), Ecstasy (1930) and The Waterfall (1931) are still used as covers in popular literature and women's psychology books.

As a businessman, Parrish knew when to change the direction of his art work. Some of the last calendars for General Electric featuring young women in landscapes, such as Reveries (1927), Golden Hours (1929), Sunrise (1933) and Moonlight (1934), did not sell as well as previous calendars. As a matter of fact, the figure of Kathleen Read, the model for the final calendar, was wiped out of the painting by the artist shortly after the calendar first appeared. It was time for a change!

The early success with General Electric set the stage for reproductions that Parrish was to create for Reinthal Newman's House of Art in New York. In effect, he was going to have a "part of the action" by creating the paintings solely for reproduction and still retaining ownership of the original work, which he was free to sell to his many collectors.

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