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Parrish, Maxfield
Born: July 25, 1870, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: March 30, 1966, in Cornish, New Hampshire
Vocations: Children’s Book Illustrator, Commercial Artist, Fine Artist

Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County

Keywords: Beck Prize in Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Century Life; Collier’s Magazine; Daybreak; Dream Days; Drexel Institute of Art; The Florentine Fete; Greek Methodology; Harper’s Bazaar; Haverford College; Ladies’ Home Journal; Paris International Expositions House of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Sage of the Seas; Scribner’s Magazine; Sing a Song of Sixpence; Society of American Artists

Abstract: Maxfield Parrish was born July 25, 1870, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He grew up in an elite Quaker environment while attending the finest universities, such as Haverford College and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which gave Parrish opportunities to explore his artistic potential. Parrish’s artistic talents were quickly recognized by his professors, and soon after graduating, the public began to adore his art as well. Some famous and publicly acclaimed illustrations and artworks are Sage of the Seas, The Florentine Fete, Dream Days, School Days, The Idiot, Daybreak, and Landing of the Brazen Boatman, which won the Beck Prize in the Pennsylvania Academy’s 1908 watercolor annual. Maxfield Parrish is known for his unique ability to appeal to the masses without compromising his own creative intuition. Time Magazine, in 1936, declared, “As far as the sale of expensive reproductions is concerned, the three most popular artists in the world are Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Maxfield Parrish.” Maxfield Parrish died in his home in New Hampshire on March 30, 1966.


Maxfield Parrish was born July 25, 1870, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Son of Stephan and Elizabeth Bancroft, Parrish was raised in a wealthy and culturally elite Quaker society. This privileged environment allowed him to be exposed to and experiment with his artistic talent starting at age five. His father, an acclaimed painter, draftsman, and expert etcher, acknowledged Maxfield’s abilities and provided him with the guidance to allow these talents to flourish. Michael Scott Joseph’s biography on Parrish says, “Maxfield came to regard his father as his most influential teacher.” Furthermore, the senior Parrish ran a stationary shop until 1877, exposing Maxfield to the business of art as well, which ultimately helped Parrish with his career. Besides the guidance he received from his father and the opportunities he was afforded from his elite Quaker upbringing, the time period between the mid 1870s to the late 1910s, known as the American Renaissance in art, promoted artistic talent in society, which appealed to Parrish. Author Sylvia Yount describes the American Renaissance as, “Encompassing both the aesthetic and the Arts and Crafts movement, 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.”

This time period influenced and encouraged Parrish’s creative talent on a variety of levels. Not only was Parrish encouraged by American culture, but also his privileged childhood allowed him to travel to Europe at age seven and experience first hand European art and culture. The impact this trip had on his artistic style is illustrated in his adoption of the “olden-time” theme, which dominated most of his artwork. It was clear at an early age that Maxfield Parrish’s interest in art and obvious unique artistic ability would lead the way for a prosperous and admired career.

Maxfield Parrish’s formal education first involved one year at Swarthmore College’s Preparatory. In 1888, he enrolled in Haverford College, where he remained for two years. Although there was no formal art program at Haverford, Parrish focused on architectural design and caricature. In addition, Parrish’s love for nature was encouraged by various classes and programs at Haverford. This love was revisited through his landscapes in later years. Even though the aesthetic atmosphere at Haverford pleased Parrish, he chose to leave there during his junior year to pursue learning in visual arts rather than architecture. He enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Here, he was introduced to a rigorous art program under many professors who were talented and diverse. For example, he studied under Robert W. Vonnoh, a realist painter, Thomas P. Anschutz, an American impressionist, Carl Newman, a modernist, and Henry Thouron, a renowned composition professor. An 1895 exhibition at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts singled out Parrish’s work in Thouron’s class, expressing: “In Mr. Parrish the academy has today among its students one of the most brilliant and most suggestive decorative painters in the country. With the ease of genius, he is accomplishing wonderful results at a stage when usually only the merest students’ crudities are turned out and it is safe to say that all his work will be in swift growing demand.” After finishing his program at the Academy of Fine Arts, Parrish went on to share an art studio with his father in Annisquam, Massachusetts. After a year his father encouraged Parrish to continue his education, enrolling him in the Drexel Institute of Art.

However, one of his professor’s remarked that there was nothing more he could teach Parrish and that the classes were too rudimentary for his abilities. Parrish met Lydia Austen, his future wife, at Drexel. Lydia was also a talented artist with a Quaker upbringing. They wed on June 1, 1895, and they moved into an apartment on Twelfth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia. During this romantic, happy, and settling time in his life, Parrish also experienced professional triumph.

From the late 1800s until the 1920s, Parrish’s style was generated from his view of commercial art and fine art as assets of each other. He accepted many commissions in commercial art, which gained national attention for him and provided his livelihood during this time. For instance, Parrish won his first magazine cover design for the 1895 Easter number of Harper’s Bazaar, which was adored by the public and marked national attention of his work. A mixture of lithographic crayon, wash, and ink on Steinback paper was the technique Parrish used in several of his paintings during this time. Sylvia Yount explains in his book on Maxfield Parrish, “the boom in illustrated mass-market periodicals and newspapers, in turn, generated a growing respect for the skills of the artist-illustrator.” This can explain why other magazines such as Scribner’s Magazine, Century Life, and St. Nickolas continuously employed Parrish as an illustrator during this time period. In addition, Parrish illustrated his first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, for L. Frank Baum in 1897.

Parrish’s works allowed him to prosper, and he constructed a home in Cornish, New Hampshire. He named this estate the “The Oaks,” which consisted of fifteen lavish rooms. The location for the development of this home is due to his love for nature and scenic landscapes. This home was a place he continued to redevelop and improve on as his career grew. More importantly, Parrish generated creative inspiration from the architectural design of “The Oaks.” His later illustrations possess the same architectural designs as his home. For instance, Parrish based one of his most timeless illustrations, Sage of the Seas, on the Dream Days children book from his Oaks home. This famous illustration, as well as many others, was drawn during his thirties. During this time of his life, he was stricken with tuberculosis, yet continued to draw, while he resided in the cold climate in upper New York. As Parrish entered his forties, he seemed to have recovered from his illness, and then larger commissions beyond children books illustrations engulfed his career. For example, Old King Cole and Sing a Song of Sixpence, which were both large murals commissioned for hotels, and Dream Castle in the Sky, an over-mantel panel for Tiffany’s studio, were works that Parrish produced during this time. In addition, Parrish decorated the Curtis Company Building, a feat that required five years to fully complete. The Florentine Fete was one panel that became well known. The Ladies Home Journal announced that “every week hundreds of visitors converged upon Independence Square to admire the subtle tans of the Tuscan walls, the lush verdure of the Italian gardens, the Veronese-like arches, the colorful customs, and the exuberant beauty and vivacity of the Florentine youths.”

After these large projects, Collier’s Magazine cut a deal with Parrish, granting them exclusive rights to Parrish’s magazine illustrations for six years. This put a limit on the income Parrish would receive by denying competition from other commissioners. However, it allowed him to have more creative freedom and financial security. This financial security was more important than before because within these six years, Lydia gave birth to their first four children. Some famous illustrations that Parrish developed for Collier’s Magazine included School Days and The Idiot. Also, illustrations for this magazine were later produced in the books Arabian Nights and Greek Methodology. However, out of all these paintings, the Landing of the Brazen Boatman proved to be one of the most acclaimed painting in the series, winning the Beck Prize in the Pennsylvania Academy’s 1908 watercolor annual. Many critics admired Parrish’s ability to appeal to both children and adults. One critic, Ludwig Coy, announced, “each new work of Parrish’s is in a way a new revelation, and it would be hard to fix the limit of his powers.” In 1916 and 1923, after Parrish ended his contract with Collier’s Magazine, he painted a series of advertisements for D.M. Ferry Seed Company. These illustrations were for Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater; Peter Piper; Mary Mary; and Jack and the Beanstalk. According to Michael Scott’s biography on Parrish, after these illustrations, the public and critics alike viewed Parrish “as one of the great American fantasists of the early twentieth century.”

Going into the 1920s, Maxfield Parrish was publicly acclaimed and admired. Knowing that his art was loved and admired, he allowed the House of Art to manufacture and distribute his artwork. The House of Art allowed Parrish to use his own discretion for the subjects of his paintings. Because he secured his wealth and income, he was able to step away from commercial art and focus on his love of nature. He did this by exclusively painting landscapes. In 1922, Parrish finished Daybreak, which was the interior design piece of the decade. Many hotel lobbies featured this lovely painting, full of giddy nudes, and light colors with an overall balance. Furthermore, with the popularity of this painting, the New York Gallery held an exhibition of his artwork, which consisted over fifty of his paintings, including Daybreak. This exhibition was wildly profitable for Parrish. The years following this exhibition marked a decline in Parrish’s popularity, only for him to then resurface to unprecedented heights. In the 1930s, Parrish signed deals with General Electric and Edison Mazda Lamps, painting the same themes of nude girls in landscape surroundings for their calendars and advertisements. Finally, his last commission was with Minnesota Greeting Cards, which allowed him to exclusively paint landscapes of the New Hampshire countryside from his home in the “The Oaks.” Parrish continued to paint elaborate landscapes until arthritis prevented him from painting after 1962.

Maxfield died in his beloved home in March 1966. A commemorative article in the Boston Herald the year he died stated: “Today Parrish is ‘in,’ but this only means that he is back in vogue with the current batch of intelligentsia and a group of tastemakers who are busy creating taste for each other. He has never been ‘out’ with the public. If you grew up keeping cool with Coolidge, there was probably a Maxfield Parrish somewhere in your home. But if you’re a mod teenager today there may be Parrish around, too. He appeals to practically everybody. He was probably the last of his kind.”


Selected Books Illustrated

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This biography was prepared by Natalie M. Yurkoski.