Maxfield Parrish: 1870-1966by Sylvia Yount, Mark F. Bocknath
Maxfield Parrish was one of the most popular American artists of the 20th century. His engaging covers for Scribners and Life, murals such as Old King Cole and the Pied Piper, and posters, calendars, and paintings have delighted viewers for over 100 years. This is the first critical examination of Parrish's place in the history of American art and culture.
- Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
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In 1993, the Russian émigré artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid conducted what they billed the "first-ever comprehensive, scientific poll of American tastes in art," specifically painting. Questioning whether or not there is such a thing as truly public art, the artists -- working with a professional polling firm -- discovered that a cross section of Americans favored a "tranquil, realistic blue landscape," the kind of work derided by the art world. The results of this conceptual project, documented in both exhibition and book form, suggest that the division between elite and popular taste is alive and well in 1990s America despite the long-standing, mutually informing relationship between both forms of artistic production.
Seven decades earlier, Maxfield Farrish's Daybreak, the first work by the artist created specifically for reproduction as an art print, achieved extraordinary success as a popular icon. The New York and London-based publishing firm that commissioned the work, the House of Art, estimated that, by 1925, both high- and low-end reproductions of the painting could be found in one of every four American households. What was it about this image that appealed to a mass audience at a particular time and place? Could it have been the work's thinly veiled erotic innocence, suggesting a metaphor for female sexual awakening, or something even more universal? Komar and Melamid's data offer some possible answers.
The public's elusive blue landscape turned out to be the "most wanted" painting by focus groups surveyed on four different continents, leading Melamid to ponder whether this type of work "is generally imprinted in us, that it's the paradise within, that we came from the blue landscape and we want it." As a master of "ever-deepening blues" whose name became synonymous with a certain hue, Parrish may have achieved what Melamid calls the "dream of modernism...to find a universal art" that speaks to all humankind.
This rhetoric of universality shaped the critical and general reception of Parrish's art throughout his seventy-year-long career, leading Time magazine, in 1936, to declare: "as far as the sale of expensive color reproductions is concerned, the three most popular artists in the world are [Vincent] van Gogh, [Paul] Cézanne, and Maxfield Parrish." Parrish, unlike the other two painters, lived long enough to see his career rise, fall, and rise again, defying the conventional wisdom that the creative individual must suffer for success. As one of the most beloved artists of this century, Parrish (like van Gogh and Cézanne) continues posthumously to excite the public imagination. The current market for Parrish originals and reproductions -- not to mention such consumer merchandise as calendars, cards, magnets, and so on -- has never been stronger.
The popular distinction Parrish enjoyed both then and now, however, has affected his standing in the larger art world. Much as Komar and Melamid's contemporary project was met with derision by noted members of the establishment, who deemed popular taste irrelevant to art, Parrish's reputation suffered as the ever-widening gap between "high" and "low" art, painting and illustration, polarized in the postwar years. As a result, his work is given scant, if any, attention in art-historical scholarship, even by those writers who claim to take a more inclusive view of visual culture.
Lawrence Alloway, the critic and curator responsible for the rediscovery of Parrish in 1964, identified the artist at that time as belonging to the "invisible art world...unseen and undiscussed by all those concerned with the traditions of fine art," noting the radical distance his reputation had traveled. For at least the first three decades of Parrish's career (1890s-1920s), he was highly regarded by both critics and colleagues as a fine artist, whose work just happened to appeal to a large public. That Parrish was acutely aware of his audience from the start suggests a market savvy that, while creating his once-celebrity status, has not endeared him to the postwar art world despite the fact that throughout history artists have more or less targeted their production -- be it to the church, state, or anonymous market. A broader investigation of Parrish's life and work, in the context of American culture, yields a clearer understanding of the ups and downs of his public profile, both then and now.
Parrish was truly a figure of his transitional time, a man for whom life and art were mutually reinforcing. Coming of age in a world shaped by new technologies and heightened commercial awareness, he embodied both the nineteenth-century's spiritual love of nature and the twentieth-century's optimistic fascination with the machine. Frederick Maxfield Parrish was born into Philadelphia's Quaker elite and raised in a culturally privileged environment. From his father Stephen (1848-1938), an acclaimed etcher and landscape painter, he inherited his talent for natural observation and an understanding of the business of art. (The senior Parrish ran a stationery shop until 1877, at which time he devoted himself full time to his creative work.) Parrish's mother, Elizabeth Bancroft, whose family the artist credited for his life-long interest in machinery, also instilled in him a love of music. (Later in life he wrote, "I wish with all my heart [music] were my medium instead of bad pictures.")
In addition to parental encouragement, Parrish's creative interests were nurtured by a broader cultural phenomenon -- the so-called American Renaissance. This epoch, stretching from the 1870s to the first decade of the twentieth century, witnessed a flowering of artistic practice -- from painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts to the decorative arts, architecture, and landscape design -- with an emphasis on aesthetic unity. Encompassing both the Aesthetic and the Arts and Crafts movements, this phenomenon challenged traditional artistic hierarchies of fine and applied arts; reconsidered the relationship between amateur and professional; and prompted a great deal of experimentation and collaboration in the art world. As multitalented painters, illustrators, sculptors, architects explored a variety of decorative media, a more fluid conception of artistic production became the norm. That Parrish's expansive artistic sensibility found expression in all of these forms throughout his career marks him as an exemplary product of this age.
With boundless energy and a workmanlike diligence -- perhaps a by-product of his Quaker heritage -- Parrish committed himself to the popularization and democratization of art, viewing beauty as a form of social betterment. He took equal care with work destined for private and public enjoyment -- be it easel and mural painting, book and magazine illustration, or advertising art. Contemporaries heralded his fundamentally "aristocratic genius," "dedicated by choice to democratic ends," and went so far as to lay the "brightest hope for democracy" at his feet on account of his tireless attempts to "bring 'the best' a little nearer to everybody, and everybody a little nearer to 'the best.' "
In addition to his aesthetic philosophy, much of the hows and whats of Parrish's art, that is, the form and content, was shaped by the American Renaissance as it was enacted in Philadelphia and beyond. Early critical accounts of the artist emphasized his status as an "American original," a primarily self-taught individual who arrived on the scene with a fully developed talent....
As auction prices for Parrish's work continued to soar into the 1990s, a traveling retrospective, organized by New York's American Illustrators Gallery, once again brought the artist to the attention of the art world. Ken Johnson, writing in Art in America, found the later landscapes in particular to be "quietly miraculous...works of mystic pantheism." Describing their aura of artificiality, Johnson added, "If you discovered them unlabeled in the right contemporary gallery, you might mistake them for essays in post-modern duplicity." And, indeed, a number of artists today -- from the landscape painter Joan Nelson to the installation artist Virgil Marti -- have referenced Parrish's work in both form and concept. At a time in which the recent critical success of the portraitist Chuck Close caused one writer to marvel at the "ascendancy of what might be called Friendly Art," Parrish's ongoing rediscovery seems perfectly apt.
Despite the art world's tentative, at times ironic, embrace of Parrish, the clearest indication of his art's continuing resonance for our own visual age can be found vis-à-vis the collective memory of popular culture. Appropriated in CD design by the New Age-Celtic singer Enya; Michael Jackson videos; Mia Farrow movies; and Kamel cigarettes advertising, "our" Parrish for the nineties represents everything from nostalgic longing to sexual availability. His imagery can chart your months, mark your book, secure your grocery list, and shelter you from the rain. One can even use a figureless Daybreak as currency by way of personal checks titled "Maxfield."
Will Parrish's art continue to resonate in both "high" and "low" forms for future viewers? Will Bill Gates install Parrish next to Winslow Homer on virtual and actual walls? Komar and Melamid's project participants and the nearly seven thousand visitors to a particular Parrish web site would seem to indicate an affirmative response. For, as Lawrence Alloway posited in 1964, "Behind a screen of high technique, Parrish is a master of the cliché, of the image of the moment" -- whatever that moment may bring.
Excerpted by permission of Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Copyright c 1999 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
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