Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



4. The Murals


This exhibition is fortunate in being able to show more of the Parrish mural work than has ever been shown in one place, even during Parrish's time. Even more exciting is the fact that the original 1933 du Pont mural, which Parrish executed for Irenée du Pont of Granogue, Delaware, is present in this exhibition. When the mural began to have paint loss, the artist, then aged eighty-four, undertook the daunting task of executing a brand new mural to replace the one he had initially installed in 1933.

It is the original 1933 mural that we are pleased to highlight in gratitude for the restoration feats recently accomplished, which saved it from total ruin. It is through the tremendous efforts of restorers, conservators and volunteers that the mural exists today. In the words of Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, who led the restoration project at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Art Conservation Program, it is "the most ambitious restoration project undertaken in the thirty-year history of our Art Conservation Program. In a way, it is an American equivalent of the complicated decisions necessary during the restoration of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper." Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner writes about this experience in the final section of this catalogue.[40]

Including the two du Pont murals, the 1933 one shown here and the one Parrish painted to replace it in 1954, which is still in Mr. du Pont's residence today, Parrish accepted and executed a total of nine major mural commissions, and he collaborated with Louis Comfort Tiffany by designing the Dream Garden mosaic in Philadelphia. Edward Bok of Curtis Publishing commissioned Tiffany to produce the mosaic Parrish had designed based on a painting the artist had done of his idealized garden at The Oaks. Parrish had begged off painting the massive commission because of time constraints on other murals he was finishing. Counting the eighteen panels in the Curtis commission as well as the seven murals for Mrs. Whitney, that brought the total to thirty-four murals, a prodigious output for an artist of any age.

Parrish's career as a muralist began when he was commissioned by the Mask and Wig Club of Philadelphia in 1895 to paint a five- by twelve-foot illustrative mural for their grill room, based on the fairy tale of jolly King Cole. Since the artist was to be married that year, that first mural commission provided welcome financial assistance to aid him into convincing the lovely Lydia Austin that here was a man with artistic prospects and job offers! It is interesting that his very next mural, commissioned by John Jacob Astor for the bar of his Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, was to be a reprise of the Old King Cole of Philadelphia ... with a twist. Instead of fairy tale characters, Astor wanted the mural to be more realistic. He asked to be included in the composition as the figure of the King.

He could not possibly have known of the wicked Parrish humor! After doing several sketches for the work, some of which included arches to give it greater height, Parrish created a half-size model of the mural without arches measuring approximately seven by fifteen feet in a rough burlap material. Satisfied that the composition met the requirements for the commission, he proceeded to complete the three sections on a finer canvas. The finished work measured eight by thirty feet.

In a tale passed on by barmen for almost a century, Colonel Astor is indeed depicted as the monarch... but at an embarrassing moment: he has just passed very loud gas! The jesters (Parrish's amused face on both) laugh uproariously. Musicians stop playing instantly. Guards cover their faces (or is it their noses?). Pageboys blanch and blush... and the King? He twists his feet in embarrassment, hoping for the moment to pass. When queried by people from the hotel who had disbursed Parrish's fee of $5,000 for the mural, Parrish disclaimed any knowledge of such interpretative goings on, stating: "My intentions when painting the mural had been 110 percent pure." [41]

The success and acclaim of Old King Cole brought Parrish a number of other mural commissions, among them Dream Castle in the Sky (1908) done for the James J. Morrow residence in Lincoln, Massachusetts (currently in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts); The Pied Piper (1909) for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and Sing a Song of Sixpence (1910) for the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. This mural is now in a private collection.

The next four mural commissions represented the best in Parrish's mural work. They were the commissions for the Curtis Publishing, for Mrs. Whitney, for the Eastman School of Music and for Irenée du Pont. These murals represented a departure from the illustrative quality Parrish's previous murals had embodied, and were to be considered his entrance into the field of fine art. In the case of the Whitney murals, they set the stage for a change in direction for lithography that influenced American art reproductions from then on.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was considered to be one of the most powerful women of the early part of the century. She was an important art patron and a respected sculptor in her own right. Mrs. Whitney, one of the wealthiest women in American society, was a good friend of John Jacob Astor and had obviously enjoyed the Old King Cole. She was the artist's next mural client.

She had the architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich approach Parrish in 1909 to inquire about doing a series of murals for the reception room in her Fifth Avenue mansion. The artist was excited by the commission and prepared a series of suggested renderings. Almost a year went by without him hearing from the architectural firm. In the meantime he had been approached by Edward Bok of Curtis Publishing to design what Parrish characterized as "acres and acres of paintings" (eighteen panels) for the girls' dining room in the Curtis building.[42]

In 1910 Parrish was contacted by both the architectural firm and Edward Bok. Architect Delano wrote to Parrish in April of that year indicating that Mrs. Whitney wanted a change of venue for the murals and would prefer that they be prepared for the reception room of her studio in Old Westbury, Long Island, which was not yet completed. In July, Bok asked the artist to create a large series of eighteen murals for what he termed would be the "most beautiful dining room in the country."[43]

What Parrish initially had described to Delano and Aldrich for Mrs. Whitney's murals now became the basis for the Curtis panels. The artist incorporated many of the architectural and pictorial features of Mrs. Whitney's commission into the Curtis murals: the steps, urns, arches and columns are the ones still in existence at the Whitney mansion.[44]


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