Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



5. Color Lithography: 1917-22


A quick overview of lithography up to the early part of this century should be considered here. The concept of reproducing an artist's work in multiples to find a greater acceptance and market for the product dates back to as early as the fifteenth century, with German artist Albrecht Durer's (1471-1528) intricate and beautiful woodcuts and steel and copper engravings. Durer's greatest influence in the history of art came through his graphic work. The perfection of the technique of producing multiples enabled his work not only to be disseminated in his native Germany, but also to be introduced throughout Europe. Printed media empowered social classes with even the most modest of incomes to acquire images depicting beautiful art.

Two other artists who carried this tradition of multiples besides their more expensive oils were Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) in Amsterdam and Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) in Venice. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries another process, called mezzotint, was invented, which necessitated a plate to be covered with a mesh of small, burred dots, made by a toothed, chisel-like instrument. This provided a rich black image that could then be burnished to obtain half tones by wiping down the ink. The technique was used extensively by English artists Reynolds and Gainsborough.

During the nineteenth century Goya, Delacroix, Gericault, Daumier and Manet among others were the first to use a method of lithography that required no engraving. This involved drawing the design onto a slab of stone with a greasy chalk, and then wetting down the stone. When the greasy ink was rolled on the stone it did not take on the wet parts but stuck on the sections that were already greasy, from which the water ran off. The use of this technique by two Europeans, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) and Toulouse-Lautrec (1865-1901), did much to introduce the popular use of posters as an art form in the United States, and to set up the possibility of using photo lithography in the early part of the twentieth century. [54]

The twentieth century allowed artists who created intricate works of multiple color variations that could not be reproduced on a stone for maximal tonality to turn to photo lithography for reproductions. Beginning with Parrish, followed by Rockwell and later Andrew Wyeth, lithographic advances allowed the general public to enjoy their work for a fraction of what an original would cost.

Parrish's popularity in the print media had made the artist a very well remunerated professional. By 1917 he had illustrated several major books such as the Arabian Nights, Dream Days, The Golden Age, Knickerbocker's History of New York, Mother Goose in Prose, Italian Villas and their Gardens, Poems of Childhood, A Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics and A Wonder Book of Tanglewood Tales. The authors were well-known literary giants such as Kenneth Grahame, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Eugene Fields and Washington Irving.

Magazines had also vied for Parrish's services. William Randolph Hearst had courted the artist to do covers for the Hearst Magazine. Century, Collier's, Good Housekeeping, Harper's, Ladies Home Journal, Life and Scribner were also major players for whom Parrish had already done nearly 400 paintings by 1917, in addition to a host of other illustrations done for smaller magazines. According to Coy Ludwig's Parrish biography, some of the magazine publishers not only committed to having Parrish create covers and illustrations for them, but also bought the original paintings and paid for the illustration rights. William Randolph Hearst and Robert J. Collier, the owners of the magazines bearing their names, had begun collecting Parrish paintings early on.

Collier was known to have purchased the twelve paintings that Parrish had done for the book Arabian Nights. It is interesting to note that Robert Collier paid Parrish more for the reproductions than for the paintings. He wrote a check for a total of $10,000 in 1907: $6,000 for the reproduction rights to these works and $4,000 for the paintings. The artist never lost sight of the fact that the illustrations not only had to be skillful interpretations of fantasy, but also needed to be handled correctly and given the best possible amount of color by the lithographers. Parrish actually stopped creating covers for Hearst's Magazine series "Once Upon a Time" despite the fact that he was paid twice as much for them as for the covers he was doing simultaneously for Collier's. According to Ludwig, Parrish was not pleased with the way the paintings were handled or reproduced, so he decided not to continue the series after the sixth painting.[55]

Commercial work such as posters, ads, menus, bulletin boards and even the occasional billboard had deluged the artist from his earliest days in college. He preferred not to do them but would do so for an important client or a cause he championed. Examples of such work were the menu cover Welcome Home; Teddy Roosevelt, done for a dinner for the popular President held at Sherry's Restaurant in New York. On the menu cover the artist depicted a New York policeman presenting a welcoming bouquet (Teddy had been New York's commissioner of police). The little policeman wears Roosevelt's campaign helmet and sports his trademark spats, but carries an oversize night stick and kid gloves to symbolize the President's policy, which he first memorialized in a speech in Minnesota on September 2, 1901: "Speak softly and carry a big Stick; you will go far."

Another example of advertising done for clients, friends or causes would be the enamel advertising sign for Edison Mazda lamps. Occasionally, Parrish would also be asked to contribute a poster for a good cause like the Red Cross, the New Hampshire Planning and Development Commission or the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts. He also created posters to aid the war effort, such as The British War Relief Poster. Although no correspondence has been found to point us to the reason the artist created We've Got It and We'll Hold It, I would attribute it to something done for the World War I effort. The church in the image appears to be the Congregational Church in Windsor, Vermont.

For the most part, the artist preferred to paint only subjects that he chose himself rather than making posters and ads for advertisers, and whenever he accepted commissions he did so with reluctance. He reveled in using his imagination. His most successful posters and ads were the ones that he created using Mother Goose fairy tale designs such as the ones he did for Ferry Seeds in the period of 1918-1922 (Mary; Mary Quite Contrary, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Piper and Peter; Peter Pumpkin Eater.) Two other advertisers benefited from the fairy tale series: Fiske Tires in the years between 1917 - 1919 (Mother Goose) and in 1918 one ad for Swift Premium Ham (Jack Sprat). The Ferry Seed ads and the Swift Premium Ham ad were the most popular of the posters and ad series. This last work appeared as a poster in 1919 and then as an ad in Ladies Home Journal in 1921. Jack Sprat was recently found after being left in a donation pile given to an auxiliary for the Good Samaritan Hospital in Chicago. At first, the work was thought to be a print worth only a few hundred dollars (the poster would be worth more, between $2,000 and $3,000). When it was identified as an original, as opposed to a print, the auxiliary was elated to find out it now had an asset worth in the six figures!


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