Art Markets: Maxfield Parrish infused in romance

Family’s influence helped land major commissions


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Maxfield Parrish's 1922 masterpiece "Daybreak," sold May 22, 2010, at auction for $5.2 million. Photo courtesy Christie's

Very few artists have had a color named for them. One of them, Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), was an American illustrator and painter known for his luminous hues, including the shade called Parrish blue. His saturated colors were the most distinctive aspect of a sublimely romantic body of work that even today remains instantly recognizable and a touchstone in popular culture. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s music video “You Are Not Alone” unfolded in a setting derived from Parrish’s 1922 painting “Daybreak.” Album covers by Elton John, Enya and the ’80s British band Dali’s Car were based on Parrish images.

If there is little darkness and no anxiety in Parrish’s work, perhaps it’s because his chosen career was paved with parental approval. His father Stephen was a landscape painter and an etcher whose work was ranked alongside James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) in the fin de siecle. Born in Pennsylvania in 1870, Maxfield’s childhood included a sojourn in the garrets of Paris and a two-year stay in England where he became acquainted with the works of Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and other Pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings would influence Maxfield’s idyllic landscapes.

As a young man, Parrish attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Drexel Institute of Art, studying under Howard Pyle. Given his pedigree, he obtained important commissions as an illustrator. His first, the 1895 Easter cover for Harper’s Bazaar, was obtained through the recommendation of Pyle. His earliest illustrations were steeped in the Art Nouveau style, with women in diaphanous gowns, intricate scenes of nature and fairy kingdoms on the horizon. Already in his magazine covers, Parrish captured the spirit of enchantment and wanderlust.

Important commissions continued to come his way. In 1904 he illustrated “Italian Villas and Their Gardens” by acclaimed novelist Edith Wharton. His eye for fantasy produced arresting images for a 1908 edition of the “Arabian Nights.” He executed covers for Century magazine, the Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s, Life and Collier’s.

He painted backdrops for a 1909 New York stage production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and the cover of the 1910 edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “A Wonder Book” and “Tanglewood Tales.” He worked for advertising agencies, producing the visuals for chocolates, garden seeds and Jell-O.

With his 1922 painting “Daybreak,” Parrish became the most famous living American artist. The painting was commissioned by the House of Art publishing firm for the purpose of replicating it as a full color lithograph. The celebrated masterwork was reproduced in the millions with estimates that one in every four households had a copy on the wall. In “Daybreak,” Parrish accomplished to perfection what he did so well: conjuring a quiet world of long ago and far away.

Its Camelot setting combined elements of earth, sky and man and captured, in an ethereal moment, the warmth of sunshine, the fragrance of nature and the voluminous backdrop of a sky that extends to eternity, placing the viewer very close to heaven at the dawn of a languid summer day. One could imagine the hushed melody of composer Claude Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Fawn” beckoning from beyond.

Parrish achieved a luminous quality to his paint through a layering process unique to his style. The artist’s approach probably stemmed from layering mock-ups employed in advertising design. Through a time-consuming glazing technique, he applied paint to a white base, adding a layer of varnish, applying more paint and then more varnish, building texture and effecting a see-through quality that lit the surface to a glowing effect. He also used paper cutouts of photographs of models, enlarged, traced and placed onto his canvas to assure precise composition. Parrish followed ancient Greek and Roman formulas of architectural symmetry, drawing squares and rectangles, measured to scale, creating an ordered method of exact proportion.

Ten major works by Parrish were featured in Christie’s (New York) May 2010 sale, Important American Paintings. “Daybreak,” at the top of the block, realized $5.2 million (including buyer’s premium), coming in $2 million shy of its previous sale in May ’06, also sold at Christie’s, but a respectable number in any event. It was recently identified that the anonymous seller was Robyn Gibson (actor Mel Gibson’s former wife), who purchased the painting for $7.6 million at the 2006 Christie’s sale.

Parrish’s original drawings, watercolors and mixed media on board produced for magazine covers and illustrations appear at auction houses from Dallas and Beverly Hills to New York consistently and with good results. A glance at sales results within the last two years indicates a range from $3,000 to $32,000 for pieces dating from the 1890s onward.

A poster from the Century magazine cover, The Century Midsummer Holiday Number (1897), sold at Swann Galleries (New York) in December 2009 for $3,400 (hammer). No longer in circulation, Century Magazine, a successor to Scribner’s, was a popular monthly magazine begun in 1881 and featured many covers illustrated by Parrish during its 50-year run. It ceased publication during the onset of the Depression.

A curious trend worth noting is the appearance at auction of Parrish’s mass-produced reproductions marketed in the 1920s by the House of Art and sold in the millions. Considering the number of prints published, suggesting a saturated marketplace, it is surprising to see sales consistently at the $300 mark.

Parrish enjoyed a long life and successful career, painting until arthritis settled in his right hand at the age of 90. His final work, “Away From It All,” was completed in 1961. A lone and weathered cabin set deep in a mountain ravine, it is a fitting farewell, devoid of youth and radiant sunshine. The dim glow from the cabin window suggests the sun is setting as the purple haze of dusk falls gently over the rugged mountain rocks. It is a peaceful scene and the perfect prelude to the night. ?

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.


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