Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe
by Alma M. Gilbert
7. The Move to Landscapes
Andrew Wyeth liked to joke that, "Since you have to be good to be an illustrator, I became a mere painter instead." Parrish had certainly established his reputation as the premiere illustrator of his age. When the artist issued his Associated Press statement that he was through with figurative work, it was clearly his clarion call, his declaration of independence and his choice to turn to that which had always appealed to him: the entrance to fine art via the execution of his beloved landscapes.
It is also evident that Parrish was acutely aware that his family, particularly his daughter Jean, whom he adored, described him as "just an illustrator, not a real artist like my grandpa, Stephen Parrish". Though not stating the impetus, Parrish chose to leave the sobriquet and launch his bid on the finer landscape work that he had always preferred.
If one studies Parrish's palette since the beginning of the twentieth century, it is evident that his love of place, location and landscape is depicted in the bulk of his art. The archetypal 1929 girl-on-the-rock icon, Ecstasy, was created just when his daughter Jean was truly breaking out of the family mold, and declaring her own independence and joy in being on her own as an adult and blossoming artist. Parrish surrounded his child with the magnificent landscape he loved to depict. It is worth noting that this is the very type of landscape that Parrish immortalized three years later for his friend Irenée du Pont's mural, when he had emotionally made the move from illustration into landscape and (in his own mind) the medium that would bring his work into the realm of fine easel art.
The move was made symbolically when Parrish wiped out the figures in Dreaming, the last picture he had painted for Reinthal Newman's House of Art in 1928, and the 1932 Moonlight, the last work he had created for General Electric Mazda. Parrish intended to convert Dreaming into a pure landscape, retitling the work Dreaming/October. It remains an extremely important benchmark in Parrish's career not only because it signals his symbolic move from illustration, but also because, being unfinished, it is a powerful example of his painting, giving us a glimpse of his technique. As can be seen from the work, this is when Parrish began inpainting with his traditional tones of cobalt blue against the stark white of the gessoed panel. The work is a vibrant example, almost a time capsule, capturing the artist's inpainting technique for a viewer to study.
Parrish's last figurative work was the wonderful Jack Frost cover for Collier's, which he did because his daughter Jean urged him to do a final work using the visual feast of October leaves around the little figure.
The very thorough, deliberate and methodical artist would sometimes do several studies for any work that would begin with a simple pencil sketch or cut-out such as the above, then progress to a watercolor of the figure or site he was painting, then an oil sketch, then a more finished oil and finally the finished work. There are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes a work that would be totally completed, such as the Study for the du Pont Mural would bear the word "Study" in the title since the finished work would be a major piece along with the actual mural itself. All this preliminary work assured the artist of the perfection of the finished piece.
During the 1930s Parrish began to turn to painting landscapes, seeking the "joys of nature" for his personal comfort and solace. Jack Frost may have been the transition piece. The children had all left home for their own careers. Lydia, uncomfortable with the fact that Susan lived in the studio with her husband, would be absent herself more and more, spending winters writing or painting in Georgia's St. Simon's Island, where she owned a small house.
Again, Parrish was right on target in regard to what the United States sought in its collective soul as the Great Depression waned and the country moved toward World War II. This was a time of increased nationalism, of reverence for the sense of country, land and place. Parrish's beautiful, homey and comfortable New England vistas, as well as his spectacular mountains of the southwest, gave his work a national as well as a regional appeal during a time when America needed to draw comfort from domestic and idyllic landscapes within its borders. The artist signed up to a twenty-seven-year relationship with a Minnesota calendar-based company, Brown and Bigelow. For the first five years, beginning in 1936, Parrish produced one landscape annually. After that he created both a summer and a winter landscape for the company.
One of the earliest paintings produced exclusively for Brown and Bigelow is the 1936 Early Autumn, White Birch, in which Parrish depicts his immediate area. The oil shows the little town of Windsor, Vermont across the Connecticut River, bridged over by the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge, the longest covered bridge in the United States. The work was followed shortly by another image of the Connecticut River with Old White Birch (1936).
Parrish created landscapes both for reproduction by Brown and Bigelow and for his own enjoyment. There are fifty paintings that were at one time copyrighted by the St. Paul, Minnesota, company as well as close to forty works that were unpublished, such as the 1931 Cobble Hill, and the 1944 Autumn Brook. Four exemplary published landscapes that speak to Parrish's love of his immediate surroundings were the 1941 Plainfield New Hampshire Village Church at Dusk (which Brown and Bigelow renamed At Close of Day), the 1949 Afterglow, the 1953 summer depiction of Swift Water (titled Misty Morn by Parrish) and the depiction of a neighbor's house titled Dingleton Farm, created in 1956 when the artist was eighty-six years old.
As a very late entry into this exhibition, the second oil stolen from the author's San Francisco, California gallery in November, 1984 titled Study for the River at Ascutney was recovered by the San Francisco Police Department in 2004 and returned to its rightful owner. It is indeed with great joy that it is also included here.
In 1961 Parrish completed his last painting, which he titled Getting Away from It All. The little oil on board almost appears as a goodbye from the artist. It depicts a single house located high near a magnificent mountain peak and surrounded by winter snows that are tinged by the approaching dawn. There is a light in the window, and a spectacular light rising behind the hill beckoning the viewer to leave the safety of the home front and reach out into another realm.
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