Maxfield Parrish at The Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, presents two exhibitions devoted to Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966).† “Fantasies and Fairy-Tales: Maxfield Parrish and the Art of the Print,” the first traveling† exhibition of Parrish’s color lithographic prints (which were made from his original paintings) is on view October 31, 2009 through January 10, 2010. Included are reproductions of commissions for book illustrations, magazine covers, and advertisements. The subject of this exhibition is the phenomenon of the simultaneous merging of† advances in print technology with Parrish’s singular genius for capturing the imagination of the American public. The works reveal Parrish’s sense of humor and his eye for graphic design.

As a complement, “Maxfield Parrish: Illustrated Letters”† is on view October 17, 2009 – January 17, 2010. In 1884-1886, the teenage Maxfield Parrish traveled to England and Europe with his parents. In letters home to his cousin Henry Bancroft, Parrish chronicled and illustrated his experiences. These youthful illustrated letters provide a peek at life in England and Europe in the mid-1880’s through the eyes of a 14-year-old and a hint of Parrish’s amazing adult talent and humor. The Delaware Art Museum owns these letters as part of the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art.†

In the summer of 1884, 14-year-old Frederick (Maxfield) Parrish arrived in London. The young illustrator would spend the next two years abroad with his parents traveling to various cities and recording his experiences in a series of letters to his cousins Henry (Hen) and Edward (Ned) Bancroft. Parrish’s letters reveal unique details of continental travel and popular culture at the end of the 19th century. The accompanying illustrations provide visual emphasis for the written text. The letters also reveal an innate – even impulsive – desire to describe. His European travels provided him with a visual repertoire – the imaginary world of kings and queens, medieval castles, and ancient architecture – that would feature in his mature work.

Letter writing has a rich history of connecting people and cultures across wide geographic distances. Through the words of individuals, we gain access to a depth of detail in daily lives, which is not present in more generalized summaries of the past. Maxfield Parrish’s illustrated letters describing his youthful impressions of Europe allow us a unique view of a distant time and place in a format that is rapidly being supplanted by new modes of communication: text messaging, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, among others. Parrish’s illustrated commentaries could also be linked to today’s genre of the graphic novel, incorporating image and text in a two-pronged commentary. The exhibition is a rare opportunity for viewing the unique correspondence of the young Parrish.

The artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish was a household name during his long and productive lifetime. He was born in 1870 in Philadelphia and died in 1966 in Plainfield, New Hampshire, at “The Oaks,” the home he built and lived in for most of his life.† His earliest artistic training was received from his father Stephen Parrish, a talented artist and printmaker. In 1891, he began a course of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where his work won early acclaim. At the age of 24 Parrish decorated the new home of the University of† Pennsylvania’s Mask and Wig Club in Philadelphia. He studied briefly with Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute and then launched a career illustrating books and magazines. (It’s said that Pyle, after telling the precocious young artist that there was nothing more he could teach him, encouraged Parrish to develop an individual style.) In 1895 Parrish married Lydia Austin, a young art instructor at Drexel.

Parrish’s early work also featured a number of mural commissions, including perhaps his best known, Old† King Cole, which was originally created for the Knickerbocker Hotel on Broadway in New York and now hangs further uptown behind the bar of the St. Regis Hotel. The success of his magazine illustrations led to commercial work, including a decade of annual calendars for General Electric’s Edison Mazda Lamp division. Parrish created the much-admired advertisements, using multi-layered lithographs, becoming known as the “businessman with a brush.” By the 1920’s he was the highest-paid artist in America. This came about because he turned out an enormous number of highly popular illustrations for books and such magazines as Century, Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, and Scribner’s. Equally acclaimed were illustrations for books like Frank Baum’s Mother Goose in Prose, 1897, and Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904. For Eugene Field’s Poems of Childhood he created The Dinkey-Bird.

Parrish’s career coincided with advances in color printing technology. By the 1930s, he realized he could free himself from the restrictions of advertising and magazine work and rely solely on color reproductions of his art. Daybreak was the first painting he produced as part of an arrangement with the publishing company House of Art. The lithograph was so popular that it netted Parrish almost $25,000 in royalties within two months of its production. By 1925, it was estimated that one out of every four American households had a Parrish print. Subsequent annual and bi-annual reproductions of his original paintings were transformed into hundreds of color copies, bringing him both fame and financial success.†††

In 1931, tired of the “commercial game,” Parrish declared that he was “done with the girls on the rocks” images and began to focus on pure landscapes, his favorite painting subject. As the nation labored through the Great Depression and World War II loomed, Parrish’s tranquil, pristine landscapes, often inspired by the area around his home in rural New England, conveyed the beauty of nature and the artist’s love of his surroundings. For nearly 30 years, his landscapes were reproduced annually on widely distributed Brown and Bigelow Publishing Company calendars and greeting cards. In all, seventeen million calendars, three million greeting cards and one million prints were distributed, and Parrish received royalties for each one!

“Fantasies and Fairy-Tales: Maxfield Parrish and the Art of the Print” was organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, Washington, D.C. Maxfield Parrish: Illustrated Letters was organized by the Delaware Art Museum. In Delaware, these exhibitions are made possible, in part, by grants from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. “Maxfield Parrish: Illustrated Letters” is partly funded by a grant from the Delaware Humanities Forum, a† state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.†††

The Delaware Art Museum, located at 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday noon – 4 p.m. For more information, call (302) 571-9590 or (866) 232-3714 (toll free)

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