In previous blogs, when I looked at the world of illustrators and the lives of some of the leading nineteenth century American exponents such as the Red Rose Girls and Howard Pyle, one name that kept cropping up was the renowned painter and illustrator, Frederick Maxfield Parrish. He was an influential and prolific American painter and illustrator, who was ranked amongst the most commercially successful and highest paid artists of the US during the 1920s.
Frederick Parrish was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 25th 1870. His descendent, Edward Parrish, the captain of a trading vessel which journeyed between England and Chesapeake Bay, hailed from Yorkshire, England. On settling in America he was given three thousand acres of land where Baltimore is now situated. Today’s artist’s given name was Frederick, but he later, in 1896, adopted Maxfield as his middle name. This was the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Susanna Maxfield Parrish. Later he would use Maxfield as his professional name. Maxfield was born into a devout Quaker family. His father was Stephen Parrish, a landscape painter and engraver who ran a coal business and then a stationery shop in Philadelphia for several years. The room above the shop was one in which he held etching classes. Stephen Parrish married Elizabeth Bancroft in 1869, and his only child, Frederick Maxfield, was born the following year.
Maxfield’s first art tuition came from his father at the age of three, and years later he recounted that his father was the most influential teacher and that the two of them had an excellent relationship. During his childhood Maxfield enjoyed drawing and was a very competent draughtsman and a constant doodler! In 1877 Maxfield and his father travelled to France on a painting trip.
Maxfield was taken ill as a young child and was confined to his bed for many days. It is thought that this may have inspired Parrish many years later for the illustrations he completed for Eugene Fields book, Poems of Childhood, one of which depicted a little boy sick in bed and having weird dreams. The cutting out of shapes and figures by the young boy would have remained with him in later life when he used pencil cut-outs as groundwork for his illustrative work in later life.
In spite of Stephen Parrish’s lack of formal art training. In 1877, Stephen Parrish, still in his thirties. sold his shop and business and concentrated on his beloved art. This was a bold, some would say foolish move to become a professional artist having only sold only six paintings by 1879, and on top of this he had to financially support a wife and a nine-year-old son. He was fortunate however as what was termed the Etching Revival was just beginning in America. Between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, the Etching Revival was an expression which referred to the rebirth of etching and was all about the huge growth and circulation of the art print as, in itself, an art form, especially in the United States. In November 1879 Stephen took his first etching lesson from the already successful Philadelphia artist, Peter Moran.
Stephen Parrish quickly recognised his son’s burgeoning artistic talent. He and Maxfield would go off on painting trips at the weekends, first around their hometown but later further afield to places such as the Massachusetts coastal districts of Cape Ann, East Gloucester and Annisquam. Fourteen-year-old Maxfield returned to France with his family in 1884. They embarked on a two-year European journey during which time they visited England, northern Italy, and Paris. During the first winter in Paris Maxfield studied art at Dr. Kornemann’s school, regularly visited art museums and attended concerts and operas every week. Besides Maxfield’s love of art he slowly developed a love of music.
During his time in Europe Maxfield wrote many letters and postcards to his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Bancroft and to his cousin Henry Bancroft in Pennsylvania. Those to his cousin were festooned with whimsical and interesting doodles. Some of the letters are held in a collection of the Delaware Art Museum. This collection consists of 34 letters and postcards written and illustrated by Parrish to his cousin, Henry Bancroft, between 1883 and 15 letters and postcards written between 1902 and 1909 and a drawing by Parrish’s son, Dillwyn.
Whilst Maxfield and his family were living in Paris, the great French writer, poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic movement, Victor Hugo, died on May 22nd 1885 and on July 1st, he was laid to rest. Crowds of people turned out for the funeral procession and Maxfield remembered the day and the funeral cortège well:
“…I was fifteen, and climbed a tree on the Champs-Elysées. The avenue was jammed but I scattered the crowd when a branch of my tree broke with a noise like a pistol shot. They thought it was the beginning of a nihilist demonstration…”
Maxfield and his parents returned to America in 1886 and Maxfield continued with his education. In 1888 he enrolled at the prestigious Haverford College, where he studied architecture and was a member of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity. Art was not taught at this Quaker college and this fact was commented on by Maxfield who wrote:
“…It would be going too far to state that art was in any way forbidden yet there was a feeling in the air it was looked upon with suspicion, as maybe related distantly to graven images and the like…”
It was in 1891 when Maxfield Parrish began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and this was almost six years after Thomas Eakins, one of the Academy’s directors, had been forced to resign in 1886, for a number of controversial decisions he had made, the final straw being him removing the loincloth of a male model in a life class where female students were present. Despite that six-year gap Eakins’ ideas and inspirations were still in evidence at the Academy. One of these was Eakins’ practice of using photography as a tool in his art.
One of the classic examples of Eakins’ use of photography is his 1883 photo entitled Eakins’ Students at the site for the “Swimming Hole”. In the picture we see Eakins standing slightly away from the others at the left, looking on at his students who are cavorting in the water at Mill Creek near Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
From this photograph and other studies which depicted nude boys playing at a variety of outdoor sports he slowly progressed with his famous painting entitled The Swimming Hole, which originally was simply entitled Swimming, and is now part of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Eakins used both male and female nudes, often students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for models, and that was another reason for his downfall as Director of the Academy.
Despite the scandals surrounding Eakins, Maxfield felt that photography could help him with his art and soon he was investigating all the possibilities this tool would afford him. Being a supreme draftsman, Parrish had the ability to draw a figure with the exactness of a photograph. The intricacy and time-consuming methods Parrish employed prevented him painting from nature. He was a consummate draftsman with a steady hand and an infallible eye. He persisted on using the camera as an artistic implement, but as an aid and not a crutch for his art. When he designed his new house, The Oaks, he ensured that there would be a darkroom in which he developed his film, which he printed on four by five inch glass slides, which could then be projected using a magic lantern. Once that was done, he was able to move an image around in his composition until it suited him and he could begin the work of drawing and composing from scratch. Projecting the image against a wall or a board allowed him to make arrangement decisions. Parrish developed great photographic skills and he built up a collection of over eleven hundred glass slides.
In 1892 he enrolled as a student at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Initially, Parrish thought that he would carry on studying architecture, but soon he developed a love for drawing and painting and so with architecture forgotten Maxfield concentrated on becoming a professional artist. Here he received art tuition from many great educators including Robert Vonnoh and Thomas Pollock Anschutz. His class at the Academy included other aspiring painters such as William Glackens, who would become a renowned realist painter and one of the founders of the Ashcan School of American art, and Florence Scovel Shinn, who later became a well-known American writer, artist, and book illustrator.
Maxfield had a long-term friendship with one of his Academy classmates, Elsie Evangeline Deming, who he nicknamed Daisy. In one of the many letters that they exchanged Maxfield extolled the beauty and tranquillity of the area, Cornish, New Hampshire, where his father had moved and was having his Northcote house built.
Stephen Parrish had come to Cornish in 1893, following the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens along with other artists, writers, and musicians who made up what came to be known as the Cornish Colony. From 1893 to 1902 Stephen Parrish spent his time building the house, a shop, a greenhouse, a stable for his horse Betty, a studio, and the extensive gardens. To take advantage of the view Parrish lined up the main garden path with the sunset and set benches around a tall pine at the end of the path. Maxfield said that just being in the area gave him a sense of optimism and strengthened his aspirations for the future. In a letter from Maxfield Parrish to his friend Elsie Deming, September 3, 1893, he wrote:
“…Oh, Daisy, you should see our place in the hillsides of New Hampshire. I was there for a week and it went way ahead of expectations. Wilson Eyre is putting us a pretty house upon it which I have not yet seen. Such an ideal country, so paintable and beautiful, so far away from everything and a place to dream one’s life away. Why daddy is a new man with it all and I long to be up there and become identified with it …. I shall go up to Windsor to stay indefinitely, maybe till December. It is a paradise up there in the mountains when the year is old! I hate to think of the city again – ever! My share of outdoor life has been a generous and appreciated one. It has changed me in many ways…”
The town of Cornish became a well-known summer resort for artists and writers, who wanted to escape the hostile summer climate of New York. Soon, the surrounding area became the centre of the popular Cornish Art Colony
In 1894 Maxfield graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went to the Annisquam Village of Gloucester, Massachusetts where he and his father, Stephen, had shared a painting studio during the summers of ’82 and ’83. His father wanted his son to expand his artistic knowledge and suggested he enrolled at the Drexel Institute at which the legendry Howard Pyle, the dean of American illustration, was lecturing on illustrative work and graphic design. According to Maxfield’s son, Maxfield Jnr., Howard Pyle after looking at his father’s work advised him that his classes at the Drexel Institute would be too elementary but Pyle enlisted Maxfield’s help in auditing his classes. It was during one of these class audits that Maxfield met another of the painting instructors, Lydia Ambler Austin, one of only three women allowed to teach in the prestigious school, who had arrived at the Institute in 1893.
Lydia Ambler Austin, reputed to be a woman of great beauty, was born in Woodstown, New Jersey, to a Quaker farming family in 1872. She was reserved but a very clever and gifted young woman. It transpires that during her early life, she had been a suffragette and was focused on helping women achieve status in their professions. Maxfield Parrish was smitten by Lydia. The story goes that Howard Pyle was involved in preparing the way for the pair to start a relationship which eventually resulted in Maxfield declaring his love for his teacher in 1894.
Howard Pyle had also told Parrish that in his opinion, he was ready to execute a commission for a magazine and Pyle contacted Harper’s Bazar and recommended Maxfield’s work knowing that the magazine was looking for a new artist for their 1895 Easter cover.
Maxfield and Lydia were married on June 1st, 1895 and went on to have four children, three sons, John Dillwyn born December 13th 1904, Maxfield Frederick born August 14th, 1906 and Stephen born November 14th 1909 and a daughter, Jean who was born on June 26th, 1911. Within a week of getting married, Maxfield Parrish left his wife and travelled to visit European salons and galleries in Paris, London, and Brussels, where he hoped to arrange to exhibit some of his work. It also gave him a chance to observe the works of the Old Masters. He was in awe of the great works. In a letter from Brussels to his wife on June 20th 1895 he wrote:
“…I have been feasting on glorious pictures in a great gallery. Oh, the masters of the Dutch and Flemish schools knew how to paint!….”
Again in another letter to his wife, this time from Paris, he wrote about his love of the French capital:
“…Here, I am in Paris at last!…………Never has anything appeared to me so vast, so magnificent. When I arrived here at sunset the city burst upon me as nothing ever did. The streets are endless and marvels of beauty…”
On his return to America in mid-August 1895, the couple moved to a rented apartment located at Twelfth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia. Life for this married couple could not have been better. His artwork was beginning to be appreciated by publishers and he was achieving a steady income for his illustrative work. Even after Lydia became a married woman she carried on with her art and her teaching as the money she earned help the couple’s finances.
Besides the Easter cover for Harper’s Bazar, Maxfield had begun receiving commissions illustrate other covers for the magazine. He also received money from Century magazine for posters and covers he completed in 1896. Maxfield entered this poster design to Century magazine who were holding competitions to attract new talent. The Century Company’s poster competition for its Midsummer edition of 1896 was won by Joseph Leyendecker. Maxfield Parrish won the second prize, and his poster was used the following year.
The Pennsylvania Academy commissioned Maxfield Parrish to design a poster for their 1896 Poster Show.
Another poster commission which Maxfield completed in 1897 was for the Mask and Wig Club of Philadelphia. The club which came into existence in 1888 was founded by a small group of University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, who were interested in the stage. They were talented and ambitious young men of prominent Philadelphia families with no proper outlet for their artistic pursuits! Maxfield was asked to create a poster for their forthcoming play, Very Little Red Riding Hood.
The Outing Magazine commissioned Parrish to provide a cover illustration for their 1899 Last Rose of Summer edition. In the poster, Maxfield used his own face and figure to portray a youth in Grecian costume examining a rose he holds in his hand. The figure is shown sitting below one of the massive oaks on the artist’s property, flanked by two plaster lions the artist had moulded in his studio. The depiction harks back to the 1805 poem by the Irish poet, Thomas Moore:
‘Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes
Or give sigh for sigh!
I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one.
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them;
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.
So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from love’s shining circle
The gems drop away!
When true hearts lie wither’d,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?
………………..to be continued.