Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



6. The Peak Years and the Magnum Opus: 1918-30


The years that brought Parrish iconic status in the United States started approximately after the artist finished the mural commissions for Curtis and for Mrs. Whitney. His unhappiness with Crane Publishing and the candy-box debacle gave him the impetus to try something new and go into reproduction for himself without the middleman. Although Crane had eventually paid the artist royalties on the three prints of Rubaiyat, Cleopatra and Garden of Allah (according to Ludwig the artist had received nearly $50,000 dollars in royalties for these three works), Parrish first committed himself in August 1920 to making a painting directly for use by the House of Art. He referred to it as his "magnum opus" and kept the publishers Reinthal and Newman at bay by telling them to have patience, and saying that the work's beautiful white panel was always before him and that he was thinking great thoughts into its eventual completion. Busy with commissions to do the illustrations for a book for Louise Saunders titled Knave of Hearts, Parrish actually delayed beginning the work until 1922.[58]

The Parrishes had met members of the William Jennings Bryan family in Florida during a brief holiday vacation in April 1922. Bryan's daughter Ruth Bryan Owens was a powerhouse in her own right. She had inherited her famous father's oratorical prowess and was a well-known lecturer who spoke on women's rights. Her family nicknamed her "Big Ruth". [59] Mrs. Owens' daughter, a comely red-haired eighteen year old, was also named Ruth. Her nickname was Kitty. Parrish, who had a great eye for beauty, persuaded Mrs. Bryan to bring Kitty to The Oaks that summer. He knew he had found the perfect second model for his "magnum opus", which he had titled Daybreak. Originally, the artist had sketched out a little watercolor for the painting which showed three figures: his eleven-year-old daughter Jean as the nude little girl figure bending over a reclining model (as yet not selected) and Sue Lewin, posing as the third figure on the right.[60]

Dartmouth College owns a pencil cut-out figure for the third model which patently demonstrates that Parrish intended Sue Lewin to be the third figure. At the back of the drawing is the sketch of Sue's face. It is not known if Parrish chose to eliminate the third figure for artistic reasons, or if Jean felt uncomfortable posing with Sue, whom she might have unconsciously identified as her father's mistress. There are no known paintings where Jean and Sue appear together. Evidently Jean had no qualms about posing with Kitty, whom she did not consider a rival for her father's attention. The Haggin Museum in Stockton owns the cut-out of the reclining figure of Daybreak showing Kitty as the reclining figure.

According to Kitty Owens' family, the eighteen-year-old beauty stayed with the Parrishes as well as with her mother, who chaperoned her stay during the summer of 1922. (Shortly after women received the right to vote in 1920, Mrs. Owen was selected as one of the first women to serve in Congress. She was also later made ambassador to Sweden.) [61]

According to Kitty's family, the elder Owen made her presence felt in New Hampshire during the time she was chaperoning her daughter. Kitty modeled not only for Daybreak but also for a number of other works that Parrish wanted for reproductions, such as Morning, Canyon, Wild Geese and all the figures of Lady Violetta for The Knave of Hearts book.

Daybreak's success not only fulfilled the publisher's wildest expectations, but would also become one of the most popular paintings of the century.

Sylvia Yount wrote in her scholarly catalogue of the Pennsylvania Academy's 1999-2000 Parrish exhibition:

In national terms, the composition's classical symmetry and balanced harmony seem to have evoked in viewers feelings of calm and well-being, perfectly matched to the booming economy of the 1920s. However, the dreamy nostalgia and transcendence simultaneously connoted by the classical associations of this ideal image, realistically rendered, may have offered reassurance in the face of the decade's growing social tensions... .[62]

Later Ms. Yount added:

The appeal of the work's erotic innocence, moreover, should not be understated. Parish frequently presented preadolescents -- both male and female -- as objects of desire, reflecting a popular if complex cultural trope of the period. By merging images of childhood and femininity in Daybreak, Parrish tweaked adult sexual anxieties at a time of increased cultural freedoms, both titillating and calming viewers with an ideal of naked innocence and youthful abandon.[63]


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