Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert

 



 

In November 1925, Parrish held one of the few exhibitions of his work during his own lifetime, in this instance at the New York gallery of Scott and Fowles. The gallery sold every single painting, including three with the then lofty price tag of $10,000 each (Daybreak, Romance and Garden of Allah).

Until very recently, the identity of the 1925 buyer of Daybreak has been shrouded in mystery. It had been assumed by the art world that the secret buyer of the painting had been William Jennings Bryan. After all, the Parrishes had visited the Bryan family in Florida the year the painting was done. Kitty Owens, the famous orator's eighteen-year-old granddaughter, had posed for the reclining image, and almost fifty years later, in 1974, I acquired the work from her collection. The gallery that sold it to me did not disclose a provenance of a previous owner, and this generally indicates that the last owner acquired it either directly or by descent from the original buyer.

Maxfield Parrish Jr., the executor of his father's estate, wrote me a letter in October 1974 telling me that I had just acquired "the real, the one and only Daybreak." In previous conversations, when I had been negotiating the purchase of the painting from the Kitty Owen family via the Vose Galleries in 1974, he had never mentioned knowing who the original 1925 buyer had been. It had always been assumed that either William Jennings Bryan or a member of his family had purchased the work since I had bought it from his granddaughter, Kitty Owen.[64]

In a letter sent to me just before my purchase of Daybreak, Max Jr. mentioned that his sister Jean Parrish remembered seeing it displayed in the state room of a yacht that had anchored briefly in the waters of Haiti during World War II during the time Jean was on the island teaching French. "When Jean identified herself as the little nude model, champagne was broken and toasts given all around." Max, however, did not disclose if he knew who the owner of the yacht may have been.[65]

It was not until 2003 that I had the pleasure of actually meeting the members of Ms. Owen's family. To my great surprise, they told me that Kitty had acquired the work from a Madison Avenue gallery in New York in 1948 for $7,000 (less than what it had originally been purchased for by the mystery buyer in 1925) and had owned it until she sold it to me.[66]

I know the family that originally purchased Romance in 1925. They were kind enough to invite me to their home to view their painting. The family's last name is the same as that recently disclosed by Joanna Parrish, one of the artist's granddaughters, in a blurb on a local monthly throwaway type of newsletter as the original buyer of Daybreak. Supposedly, her father Max Jr. had told her who the buyer had been. I'm grateful to the family of Kitty Owen for revealing that Kitty had actually acquired the work herself during the 1940s. This is an important fact in the history and provenance of the work. For now, or until there is more factual evidence as to who the initial mystery buyer of Daybreak actually was, that portion of its history will remain just that: a mystery!

The House of Art, which later became the New York Graphic Society, contracted with Parrish to be the exclusive publisher of his fine-art prints. They also reprinted previously published works as art prints, such as Rubaiyat, 1917; Garden of Allah, 1918; Morning, 1922; Evening, 1922; The Lute Players, 1924; Wild Geese, 1924; The Canyon, 1924; Romance, 1925; The Prince, 1925; The Page, 1925; Stars, 1926; Hilltop, 1926; Reveries, 1928; Dreaming, 1928; and White Birch, 1931. House of Art also issued the prints Tranquility (1936) and Twilight (1937) for Parrish's next publisher, Brown and Bigelow, who was to specialize in the reproduction of the artist's landscapes.

To gauge Parrish's popular impact on twentieth-century art, one only needs to view the lists of royalties in the collection of Dartmouth College, which were paid to him during the 1920s. They are very impressive. In 1925 alone, his royalties for prints were $75,000. To place this in perspective, it can be noted that a house in those days could be acquired for a couple of thousand dollars.

The artist's dissatisfaction and disillusion with what he termed the "commercial game" became evident. He had labored long and hard particularly with the two nude paintings Stars (1926) and Dreaming (1928), for which his teenage daughter Jean had posed. In a revealing letter to A. E. Reinthal, Parrish wrote:

The whole question of pictures made to order is a darn peculiar form of merchandize. Buyers seem to like the tiresome MP blue, for one thing, and girls having a pleasant chat for another. They must look pleasant like Daybreak and Garden of Allah and not contemplative like Hilltop, Stars and Dreaming, which are not so popular .... There are countless artists whose shoes I'm not worthy to polish, whose prints would not pay the printer! ... I'm beginning to doubt my judgment![67]

In 1932, soon before painting his last calendar image for General Electric Mazda, Parrish gave his famous "done with the girl-on-the-rock" interview with the Associated Press.[68]

It is interesting to note that this was the time in the artist's life when his children, including Jean, the apple of her father's eye, had left home for college and to pursue their own interests and careers. His wife Lydia had begun the process of distancing herself from her famous husband, leaving him more in the care of "the faithful Susan", as Parrish called his model and companion Sue Lewin. Parrish was entering his sixties. It is likely that he began yearning to devote more and more time to landscapes, his primary love in painting. He was truly done with the girl-on-the-rock era, and was ready to take up the more serious, contemplative form of his art.

 


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