Maxfield Parrish referred to Daybreak as his Magnus Opus. It is a blend of the sentimentality of the works by the Pre-Raphaelites but also retains the Old Master technique of adhering to the rules of proportion. It is a gateway to an Arcadian fantasy where we are welcomed into a dazzling landscape bathed in dawn’s rising sun which is testament to Parrish’s ability to master light and colour.
Maxfield took a complex approach to how the composition should be worked out. He used photography, paper cut-outs of the figures that he planned to include in the painting, props and models constructed in his workshop so that he could decide on the ultimate layout. He would first complete the landscape and then use a stencil of the silhouette to impose the figure on top. Once the composition had been decided by doing it in this way, he was able to concentrate on what colours he would use. The beauty of this painting comes from Parrish’s painstaking and laborious process of painting with glazes, a process used by many of the Old Masters to achieve wonderful luminosity and strength of colour. Look at the penetrating blue of the sky which radiates out from behind the foliage. This cobalt blue became known as Parrish Blue. He often used clever methods of reproducing grand components in his studio, for mountainous landscapes such as the one in Daybreak he used broken quartz rocks placed on a mirror. He created the effect of natural light and shadows through artificial methods, shining lamps on models and props. The scenery for the painting bears a resemblance to a theatre set with its prescribed layout.
Lying on the floor in the left foreground is a young woman who was “part-modelled” by eighteen-year-old Kitty Owen Spence. Kitty came from a world of social privilege, wealth, and opportunity being the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time US Presidential candidate. According to the provenance of the painting, Kitty Owen Spence was said to have actually owned the work from around the 1940’s until 1974. However, it turned out that William Jennings Bryan, her grandfather, had bought it for a fairly high amount, but because he had political ambitions and did not want it known that he had spent a large sum of money on a painting and this could be the reason that the provenance of the work was attributed to his granddaughter.
Maxfield Parrish’s daughter, Jean, who was eleven at the time, posed as the standing figure who is bent over the prone figure.
However, what is more intriguing is the figure that does not appear in the final work and this we know, if we look at his preliminary sketch of how he wanted the composition to be. Maxfield had initially intended to have a third figure seated near the base of the column in the right foreground. It is also believed that this figure was intended to be posed by Susan Lewin, Maxfield’s housekeeper, his favourite model and lover. Alma Gilbert, art dealer, curator, author, and broker specializing in Maxfield Parrish, speculates in her 2001 book Maxfield Parrish: The Masterworks that because his long-time model and probable mistress Susan Lewin posed for that third figure, Parrish’s daughter asked him to remove her. In the end, however, Parrish used Lewin’s body as the model for the reclining figure and gave it the face of Kitty Owen.
Just two other interesting things about the painting I must recount. As you know, I like a good story behind a painting and so did the House of Art who had commissioned the work. They asked Maxfield to write a paragraph to accompany the work, but he declined, stating:
“…Alas, you have asked the very one thing that is entirely beyond me, to write a little story of Daybreak, or, in fact, of any other picture. I could do almost anything in the world for you but that. I know full well that public want a story, always want to know more about a picture than the picture tells them but to my mind if a picture does not tell its own story, it’s better to have the story without the picture. I couldn’t tell a single thing about Daybreak because there isn’t a single thing to tell; the picture tells all there is, there is nothing more…”
And so, it is up to viewers of the painting to create their own personal meaning of Daybreak.
Much has been written about the painting and I have tried to condense the information I have gleaned from various books and websites but I decided not to attempt to explain the compositional rules followed by Maxfield Parrish when he planned the work. It has all to do with Jay Hambridge’s rules of dynamic symmetry and I will leave you great artists to read about that yourself. It is far too complex for me!
And finally, does the scene of the naked figure bending over the young woman who lies prone on the floor remind you of a similar, more recent scene ??? Caste your mind back to 1992 and the Michael Jackson music video for his song, You are not alone, in which he appears in an affectionate semi-nude scene lying on the ground with his then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, bent over, looking down at him. The painting has surprisingly always been in private ownership. On May 25th, 2006, Daybreak was purchased by a private collector, Mel Gibson’s then-wife, Robyn, at auction at Christie’s for US $7.6 million. This set a record price for a Parrish painting. Five years later, on May 21st, 2010, it was sold again for US$5.2 million.
In September 1918 Maxfield Parrish left Philadelphia and moved to an apartment at 75 East 81st Street, New York where he would be close to his two older sons who were attending the Teacher’s College. Parrish asked Sue Lewin to accompany him and the two lived together there for almost a year. By now it must have been obvious to him that people and the media were becoming interested in his relationship with his wife Lydia and his model, Sue Lewin. Rumours were rife but Parrish would not comment on their enquiries about his relationship with Sue. Maxfield Parrish was aware how scandal could devastate his life and career as he had witnessed the furore first-hand when his mother had left his father to join a Californian commune. Sue was in full agreement with Maxfield about not commenting on their relationship and in a reply to a salacious question, she said:
“…I’ll have you know that Mr Parrish has never seen my bare knee…”
This denial could well be taken with a “pinch of salt” as she had posed nude for his illustrations for the Mazda Lamp calendar of 1921. After Parrish and Lewin had passed away, construction workers at the estate found a secret compartment where Parrish had hidden the nude photographs he had taken of Lewin.
By 1921, Parrish’s wife Lydia had had enough of the ménage à trois and confided with her friend and neighbour Mabel Churchill. Mabel and her husband spoke to Maxfield and told him that his marriage to Lydia would not survive whilst Sue was living with him in the studio. To help solve the problem Lydia went off to Europe with the Churchills and Sue moved from the studio at The Oaks and into Winston and Mabel Churchill’s vacated home. On October 26th, 1923, in a cruel twist of fate the Churchill’s home, Harlakenden, burned to the ground and Sue had to return to living in the studio of The Oaks. She would remain there for the next forty years! The villagers from the tiny farm town were scandalized by this living arrangement and even sent a delegation out to the estate to confront Parrish, but Parrish and Lewin both contended that their relationship was purely platonic.
Lydia Parrish returned from her European journey to find the living arrangements of Sue Lewin had not changed. She must have been both angry and sad but probably weighed up the pros and cons of divorcing her husband and reluctantly decided to remain living at The Oaks whilst Maxfield and Sue lived in the studio complex. Sue Lewin continued to model for Parrish and appeared in many of the children’s book illustrations. One such book was the Knave of Hearts written by Louise Saunders in which Sue posed for the characters of Lady Violetta, Ursula, and the Knave.
The last time Sue modelled for one of Parrish’s paintings was in 1934 when she was forty-five-years-old, although the final model was Kathleen Philbrick Read. It was entitled The Enchanted Prince and it depicts a beautiful young woman contemplating the frog which is perched in front of her. When Maxfield completed the work, he decided not to sell it and instead, gave it to Sue. In Alma Gilbert’s book, The Make-believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin, she wrote that this gift could be to let her know that she was the youthful maiden who had dissipated his loneliness and returned him to rule over some enchanted kingdom.
From around 1930 Parrish’s paintings were landscape works. One reason could have been that his favoured model Sue Lewin was now into her forties and could no longer pose as a lithe young female. In his 1928 painting, Dreaming, he completed for Reinthal Newman’s House of Art in 1928, we see a young girl sitting underneath a tree beside a lake in a tranquil autumn setting.
In his 1932 version of the work, entitled Dreaming/October, which was Maxfield’s last work he had created for General Electric Mazda company, he removed the figure and turned the work into a pure landscape painting.
Like all good novels, the reader cannot wait to read the last chapter to see what happens in the end. So, let me tell you how it all ended for the three main protagonists of these blogs, Maxfield, his wife Lydia and his favoured model, Sue Lewin. Maxfield Parrish continued with his close relationship with Sue despite being married to Lydia. His children had all married and moved away from the family home, The Oaks.
Lydia who had often spent an annual vacation on St. Simmons Island, the largest of the Golden Isles along south Georgia’s Atlantic coast, which she had first visited in 1912. She eventually bought herself a cottage and some land on the island and became interested in old plantation songs and eventually in 1942 had a book published, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. Lydia died alone of cancer on Saint Simmons Island on March 29th 1953, aged eighty-one. Lydia was buried on the island at the Oglethorpe Memorial Gardens. At the time of her death, she had been married to Maxfield for fifty-eight years.
Maxfield was now a widower and had the opportunity to move his close and intimate relationship with Sue Lewin to a marriage status but that did not happen. Whether Sue held out the hope that he would propose we cannot be sure but she stayed with him for a further seven years until in 1960 when she was 71 and Maxfield was 90, she left him and married Earl Colby who had been her childhood sweetheart and had once courted her whilst she lived and worked at The Oaks. The question of why Maxfield never proposed marriage to Sue is not known. Maybe he believed it was just too late in his life or maybe he remembered the problems with his marriage to Lydia and also the failed marriage of his father and of course he had always denied that he and Sue had had an intimate relationship. Shortly after Sue married Earl Colby, Maxfield Parrish made a new will which started by stating that firstly, all his debts were to be paid off and then secondly:
“…I give and bequeath to SUSAN LEWIN COLBY the sum of Three Thousand Dollars ($3000) and direct that any inheritance, estate, death, succession or other tax imposed by the Federal Government or any State Government on this bequest be paid out of my residuary estate…”
For a rich man, giving the sum of three thousand dollars to somebody he had known for fifty-five years may be looked upon as a trifling amount. Why was it such a small amount? Had an earlier will bequeathed her more? Was it an act of revenge for her marrying Colby? It was if the amount was a suitable sum for one of his servants which would, of course, substantiate his declaration that there had never been a close relationship between him and Sue. Or was the fact that Sue was mentioned in the will a declaration by Parrish and acknowledgement of his relationship with her. We will just never know. Earl Colby died in 1968. Colby had children from a previous marriage who inherited his house. Sue then moved into her Aunt’s home. Her aunt then left the dwelling to Sue in her will and this was where she lived for the rest of her life. Sue Lewin Colby passed away on January 27th 1978 and was interred that Spring alongside her late husband in the Plainfield cemetery.
Maxfield Parrish continued with his painting until 1961 when, he was ninety-one-years-old. His arthritis prevented him from painting any more. His last work was a small landscape painting entitled Getting Away From It All and can be viewed as Parrish’s ultimate expression of his love of nature. It is a beautiful depiction, showing one small, snow-covered cottage which appears dwarfed by the towering mountains surrounding it, yet the window of the home persistently glows with warmth from within. It is a more exceptional work in that Parrish chose to paint the subject solely for himself and remained with him, in his studio, for the remainder of his life and maybe the title of the painting recognises that, with this work complete, he was giving up his career as an artist.
Maxfield Parrish spent his last years in a wheelchair and was looked after in his house by a live-in nurse. On March 30th 1966, he died, aged 95. He was buried at Plainfield Cemetery, Sullivan County, New Hampshire. Three years later, his eldest son, John Dilwyn Parrish, who died on January 4th 1969, was buried besides him.