Maxfield Parrish’s art caught imagination – it was a combination of beautiful colors, skillful drawings, fanciful worlds and creatures to inhabit them, and through it all a humorous yet human approach to life. The wonder and magic of Maxfield Parrish has made him one of the best loved and most enduring artists of the 20th century.
Maxfield Parrish was born in Philadelphia, on July 25, 1870. His father, Stephen Parrish, owned a stationery shop and had a strong interest in art, and eventually became a well-known etcher. Maxfield’s parents encouraged the development of his artistic talents by exposing him to literature, fine music and visual arts from an early age. As a young man, Parrish studied at Haverford College, then enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to prepare for a career as an artist. His architectural education served as the foundation from which his artistic skills grew.
Coy Ludwig’s Maxfield Parrish, originally published in 1973, and later republished by Schiffer Publishing, remains the authority on the life and works of Parrish. Among the contributions Ludwig made to Parrish scholarship was the continuation of a numbering system for images that Parrish himself began. Parrish started at number one and continued to 520, which he reached in January, 1910. Ludwig continued the system, assigning numbers to previously unnumbered images, and to those created after 1909. Each image received one number, and that number stayed with it no matter where the image was used. This creates a wonderful reference system, particularly when Parrish’s images appear in many forms. The Parrish/Ludwig numbering system appears in the “Catalog of Selected Works” which appears at the end of his book.
According to Ludwig, Parrish’s start in magazine illustration began by chance. Thomas W. Ball, of Harper and Brother’s Art Department, was visiting an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where studies for Parrish’s Mask and Wig Club decorations were being displayed. He invited Parrish to submit a cover design for the Easter, 1895 issue of Harper’s Bazar. Parrish submitted two designs, one which was used for that issue and one which was used for the Easter cover of Harper’s Young People.
It was the beginning of a long and fruitful aspect of Parrish’s career, though one about which he had mixed emotions. Parrish’s imaginative covers and illustrations have adorned a variety of magazines, including, most notably, Harper’s, Scribner’s, Collier’s, Life, and Century.
In 1897, Way and Williams of Chicago were preparing to publish a work by a new author, L. Frank Baum. The book was a children’s book named Mother Goose in Prose and it required some eye catching illustrations to make it work. They turned to a young artist from Philadelphia, whose cover and illustration work for Harper’s had won critical and popular acclaim.
Maxfield Parrish’s illustrations for Mother Goose were a great success, and in the years that followed he created covers and illustrations for a large number of books. In the early years illustrations were principally reproduced in black and white. With Poems of Childhood in 1904, Parrish’s work began to be printed in color, and his popularity was boosted even higher. His final book illustrations, for The Knave of Hearts published in 1925, are the culmination of his work as an illustrator.
Maxfield Parrish was one of the blessed few who won public recognition and acceptance from the beginning.
In the late 1800s, a color craze swept America. With the perfection of color lithography, color images became more readily available at an affordable price, and Americans loved them. They collected everything from trade cards and cigar labels, to magazine illustrations and pieces printed specifically to meet this desire.
Maxfield Parrish’s work was among the most collectible, and in 1904 The Ladies’ Home Journal offered “Air Castles” to its readers for a dime. Others followed, including Scribner’s and Collier’s, who reproduced Parrish’s work in art print form.
As time passed Parrish garnered more control over the reproduction rights to his work, and began to reap more of its financial rewards. Eventually he was able to limit his advertising work and concentrate on art that was targeted to the home decorator. His collaboration with the House of Art produced some of his most beloved work, and that which collectors seek most avidly.
Parrish was asked by General Electric, via Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Company of Boston, to design the 1918 Mazda Lamp calendar. Parrish agreed, and the calendar was so well received by the public that Parrish continued to illustrate the Mazda Lamp calendars for 17 years, until 1934. Most of the calendars were issued in two sizes, as large posters for business use and in a smaller size for public distribution. Many families removed the date pads and framed the Parrish prints.
Along with being a great colorist, Parrish was also a master in the use of shadow and light – the main reason that GE chose Parrish as the artist for the Mazda calendar series, whose general theme was light. Parrish generally chose his setting as early morning, light colors associated with these hours. When the setting was noontime, Parrish used trees, rocks, and mountains to provide the shadow in which deeper colors could appear.
At age 66, Parrish was exhibiting at the Ferargil Gallery on 17th Street in New York City. An article in Time Magazine, February 17, 1936, reports that he was received with great acclaim. “No matter what art critics may think,” the article reported, “art dealers know that, as far as the sale of expensive art reproductions is concerned, the three most popular artists in the world are Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Maxfield Parrish.”
The Time article quotes Charles Fabens Kelley of the Chicago Art Institute as commenting that Parrish has no imitators because “it is just too darned hard work to imitate him... he can domesticate the most unruly colors.” A meticulous craftsman, Parrish’s painting method involved applying numerous layers of thin transparent oil, alternating with varnish, yielding a great luminosity and extraordinary detail.
Each generation has found for itself the beauty of Parrish’s art, the delight and joy it can bring, and the power it has to awaken the imagination and give space and time to fancy and fantasy. It is this discovery, time after time, generation after generation, that has kept collectors clamoring for Parrish’s work to adorn their homes. They have kept the wonder alive.
His magnificent home “The Oaks” was located in Plainfield, NH on a hill overlooking a twenty mile view of the Connecticut River Valley. It contained a library lined with books from top to bottom, with cozy window seats, and a separate studio across from the main house, also filled with reference and inspirational material. Parrish lived in Plainfield for 68 years, until his death on March 30, 1966 at 95 years of age.
For the collector, it is most desirable to find the illustrations as they were originally intended, bound in a mint condition book. In reality, they are often found excised from the books, and offered as single pages.
Maxfield Parrish was prolific, and part of the joy of collecting is the variety of forms of his work. Main sources for Parrish collectibles would, of course, be auctions, flea markets and general antiques dealers. The dealer should be reputable to avoid misrepresented age or origin, and generally knowledgeable regarding Parrish works – their rarity, relative pricing and market trends. They should be able to explain originals and reprints, and foxing and fading problems and their effect on the price.
Paper is a very delicate material. Magazine covers were printed on cheap acidic paper and were especially prone to damage and deterioration. The calendars were give-away items, also printed on acidic paper or cardboard. Most were used and then discarded. Those that survived were relegated to the box of old papers in the closet or attic, where silverfish, mice, and accumulated dirt have taken their toll. Even worse are those items stored in a damp basement. Framed items, like the art prints, have also suffered from improper storage. On the walls, another enemy was silently at work – light.
Parrish was very demanding of his printers. He insisted that they use all their abilities to bring out his beautiful colors when making a print from his original oil painting. The results were the vivid and striking prints that we value so greatly. Unfortunately, he exercised no control over the handling and framing of the prints after their creation.
Most were framed unmatted, with the print pressed directly against the glass. Many were dry-mounted or backed with acidic cardboard as well. Today the effect of years of sunlight is noticeable on many Parrish art prints. The pink flowers and bright yellow sunlight are gone from many, many “Daybreaks.” The girl in “Stars” has an unusual green skin tone. The red-brown leaves in “Hilltop” and “The Lute Players” have faded to a muddy green. Ironically, some collectors actually like the muted tones on some prints better than the strong colors of an unfaded version.
There are prints, calendars, and magazine covers with exceptional color available to the collector who is willing to pay for top quality. Since condition is the main price determinant, sometimes you can pick up a rare piece at an affordable price if you can accept it being less than perfect. Fading, minor creases and small foxing spots are usually not too objectionable. Tears and holes should greatly reduce the price, and these pieces should be only a temporary addition to your collection until a better example comes along. Bad water stains are most unsightly, acceptable only to the most forgiving collector.
The art prints are most desirable in their original frames. Period frames are acceptable at a slightly lower price. If you find a great print in a new frame, plan on upgrading the frame when one becomes available. Calendars and magazine covers are preferred framed in old frames. New frames are acceptable if done in the traditional Parrish style. Part of the fun of collecting is finding the items of your dreams, and it is just as gratifying to seek out and find better examples and “trade up.”
Since the early 1970s, copies have been produced of many Parrish art prints, advertisements, posters, and calendar tops. Almost all were printed on a glossy paper which varies greatly from the dull finish of the originals.
Out of the frame, the reproductions are easily identified. Under glass they require a closer scrutiny. The two most obvious differences are coloring and clarity. The reproductions are remarkably colorful, but the colors look artificial and harsh. Because of the cheap printing process, clarity is compromised. The reprints look fuzzy, with the colors blurring together slightly.
Buy only from reputable and knowledgeable sources until you become familiar with the differences. Do not be afraid to purchase a print simply because someone has put new acid-free material behind it. Paper conservators are aghast at the number of collectors who spend hundreds of dollars on a Parrish print and then leave the dirt on the inside of the glass and the acidic cardboard behind it in the frame.
Of course, if you doubt its authenticity or the dealer is unknown and not willing to guarantee it, do not buy it.
The following prices are examples of what you should expect to pay from a knowledgeable, reasonably priced dealer. Prices will vary by geographic location. Generally prices for Parrish’s artwork are higher on the West Coast.
Art Prints in original frames with no damage and B+ (88%) color rating:
Edison-Mazda Calendars in period or original frames, condition and color at least B+. “Cropped top” refers to just the artwork – the calendar having been cut off. Most calendars came in a small size, approximately 19 by 9 inches and a large size, approximately. 39 by 24 inches. The cropped tops are: small size approximately 9 by 7 inches and large size approximately 22 by 14 inches:
Magazine Covers in old frames in B+ condition and color:
Books illustrated by Parrish. First editions, in VG condition:
Our thanks to William Holland and Schiffer Publishing for their cooperation.
Photos courtesy Schiffer Publishing. William Holland has been collecting Maxfield Parrish since 1975.