Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe

by Alma M. Gilbert



8. Twentieth-Century Icon: Parrish's Influence on American Art


What is the seminal influence that creates or leads to immortality, or at least permanence, in the cultural panorama of a country's art? If memory is part of the equation in determining intelligence, then perhaps being part of the memory and consciousness of a country's art is integrally woven into the patterns and sequences of the country's artistic soul. It is as good a way as any for measuring the immortality or permanence of an artist. In a newspaper interview given at the time of his opening exhibition in the prestigious New York museum, Gallery of Modern Art, Parrish commented to the reviewer: "I don't know what people find or like in me, I'm hopelessly commonplace! ... Current appreciation of my work is a bit "highbrow", I've always considered myself a popular artist."[72]

Perhaps it is this very "commonplace" trait that found a resounding echo in the psyche and consciousness of the American nation. Parrish was working at a time in history when America needed a place of make-believe and innocence to which people could escape some of the horrors that the world was facing; they also needed a place of comfort. Parrish's views of country landscapes and the homes with the lighted windows waiting for the returning wanderer or soldier coming home from the wars thus found a resounding echo in the American collective psyche.

Important twentieth-century artists such as Victor Vasarely, Jasper Johns and Andrew Wyeth found that aspects of Parrish's art and methodology influenced or inspired them. Parrish was executing paintings with intricate optical and geometric designs in works such as The Idiot and the North Wall Panel fifty years before Vasarely's work was designated by the term "Op Art". The 1909 paintings done for Collier's, such as Arithmetic and Alphabet, were precursors to Jasper Johns' modern art. In 1964-65 Lawrence Alloway, then the curator of the Guggenheim Museum, organized the first major museum retrospective of Maxfield Parrish's works, which traveled from the Bennington Museum in Vermont to the Gallery of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition was acclaimed by Time magazine in an article calling the ninety-four-year-old artist "Grand-Pop", a play on the term that Alloway himself had coined with his usage of Pop Art terminology. [73]

Ten years after the Alloway exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art, a series of Parrish museum shows began bringing his originals to larger and larger responsive and appreciative audiences. James Duff curated the Parrish exhibition at the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in 1974, and I helped curate an exhibition in Japan in 1976. The Norman Rockwell Museum did an exhibition for the artist at the end of 1995 and Sylvia Yount from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts curated a major museum retrospective of Parrish in 1999, the first such exhibition since the one held at the Gallery of Modern Art in 1964. This last exhibition and Ms. Yount's scholarly catalogue did much to examine Parrish's place in twentieth-century American art and his emergence from illustration into the field of fine art.

Parrish's influence continues in the twenty-first century. In February 2001, the United States Post Office issued a set of stamps celebrating the great illustrators of the twentieth century. I was asked for a recommendation for a work to be reproduced on a stamp. Parrish's Interlude, a mural executed for the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, was selected. In 2002, a stretch of the New Hampshire highway that runs below the Parrish house and next to the Cornish Colony Museum which exhibits his works was renamed "The Maxfield Parrish Highway".

The artist's influence has permeated other aspects of popular culture, such as writing and music. F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term: "as blue as a Parrish sky" in one of his novels, pop artists and icons such as Andy Warhol, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Enya used Parrish imagery in their presentations and album and CD covers in the 1980s and '90s. Parrish's own predilection for music (he painted while he listened to classical music) now translates into musicians being influenced by his paintings and composing delectable music and ballet scores. The artist once remarked to his model Kitty Owen that he had always felt that music was the one transcendental element which inspired him while he was working.[74]

It is unquestionable that Parrish and his art greatly influenced the twentieth century and continues to do so into the twenty-first century. His work has found resonance in the American national psyche and allowed Americans to discover a commonality of thread in each other: the love of dreams, the love of splendor and the love of place within the beautiful country that he depicted. To remain in the consciousness of a nation and in the memory of a people ... is that not what immortality is about? Whether Parrish valued immortality or not, passionate appreciation of his art will certainly endure.


Go back to the Index of Essay Sections

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.