Sunday, July 25, 2010

Beautiful Dreamer

Magnet # 302: Maxfield Parrish's Contentment

Material: Plastic

Purchased By: Me

The incredibly talented American illustrator Maxfield Parrish was born in Philadelphia on this day in 1870. His birth name was actually Frederick Parrish but he later chose to take Maxfield, the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, a Quaker, first as his middle name and later in place of his first name. Unlike many artists, he was actually born to another artist, Stephen Parrish, a painter and etcher who had spent the early part of his life working in the mercantile industry. He became his son's greatest influence, inspiring him to continue with art and even taking him to Europe to see the works of the masters. While architecture was his first field of study, he soon turned his attention to a more realistic, idealized style of illustrative art. Later, Parrish attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Drexel Institue of Art, where he studied under the great American artist Howard Pyle. He also married one of the school's painting instructors, Lydia Austin, with whom he would have four children. Not long after Parrish began working, he found great success in creating advertisements and images for magazines and children's books. By the turn of the century, Parrish had become the most beloved American artist, an honor he would hold until the 1940s, when Norman Rockwell's popularity eclipsed his own. In 1900, however, he contracted tuberculosis, a disease he would continue to battle over the years, and suffered a nervous breakdown. But he persevered, realizing the creation of his dream home, The Oaks, in Plainfield, New Hampshire, where he would spend the rest of his life. In the summer, it was a popular gathering place for friends and family but during the frigid winters, he was able to focus solely on his art. In 1905, a 16-year old nanny named Susan Lewin was hired to look after his children and the two formed a deep connection. She became his assistant, his muse, posing for many of his works, and eventually his lover. While Parrish and his wife would become estranged, Lewin would stay with him for over fifty years. Eventually, he began to do less commercial work, living off of royalties and painting more fantastical paintings of figures in idyllic settings. For the last 30 years of his career, however, he simply painted landscapes and while they were lovely, they were never quite as popular as his earlier works. Parish continued to paint until the age of 91, and he passed away four years later. Although he had never been part of any particular artistic school or movement, he had created a truly unique style and his work would inspire and influence future generations of artists.

I think I'd like to live in a Maxfield Parrish painting like this one. It may not be one of his most famous images, but it is characteristic of his paintings of somewhat classical figures reveling in a majestic landscape. In these paintings and in so many others, Parrish's subjects are truly in love with life - they're not afraid, angry, or feeling any other negative emotions. Looking at them makes it possible to push aside the banalities of everyday life. Parrish really had a talent for giving his viewers a sense of escapism in his work. I've never seen one of them in person, but I'd really like to one day. And it seems I might be in luck - his former home, the Oaks, in New Hampshire has been privately owned since 1985, but it is now being opened to the public in a limited capacity. Some of the garden is now open to the public, and there is a museum in part of the house itself where more Parrish paintings are currently on display than anywhere else in the country in two gallery halls. Even two of his huge murals are part of the collection, along with works by other artists, including his father. Unfortunately, the studio building where he created so many of this most beloved works is not a part of the tour - what a shame. I hope that will change eventually. Nonetheless, it is an excellent reason to stop by Plainfield, New Hampshire someday. Even now, 140 years after his birth, Parrish continues to be one of America's most popular artists, contributing greatly to the Golden Age of Illustration and creating some of the most unique and magical images of any artist throughout history.

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