Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Maxfield Parrish

When I was a girl, I adored the paintings of Maxfield Parrish.  More accurately, I should say I adored the prints of Maxfield Parrish.  In the 1970's his posters and calendars could be found everywhere from gift shops to head shops.  My brother had one tacked to the wall in his room, and I used to stare at that blue--Parrish blue--wondering how such paintings could be made.  In fact, I'm currently working on a young adult novel, and one of the main characters is named Max in honor of Parrish.  I'd never actually seen any of his paintings themselves until this past weekend when Todd and I went to the Cornish Colony Museum in Windsor, Vermont, on the eastern border of the state, just over the Connecticut River from Cornish Mills, New Hampshire. The best part is that, if you're coming from the south, you have to cross a sweet old covered bridge to get there.  

Parrish lived in Cornish Mills, and he was a long-time member of the Cornish Arts Colony, which had more than seventy members, including actresses Ethel Barrymore and Isadora Duncan, painters Henry and Edith Prellwitz, and sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Bessie Potter Vonnoh.  Cornish even served as the summer White House for Woodrow Wilson for three years.  The museum celebrating the works of these artists is located in an old fire station on the Main Street in Windsor.  Their collection includes several of Parrish's studies, many prints, a first edition of The Knave of Hearts, and a couple of his large murals.
At one point in the early 20th century, Parrish was the most popular artist in America.  It is estimated that his work hung in one in every four homes in America.  This is primarily because he had no qualms with having his paintings reproduced on magazine covers, calendars, posters, and advertisements.  His illustrations for children's books, including the Knave of Hearts, are nothing short of stunning.  He also painted a large oil called Dream Garden, which Louis Comfort Tiffany then executed in glass mosaic.  Of course, what Parrish is most famous for are the paintings of beautiful, often androgynous young women posing in natural, almost mystical settings.  And that lapis blue.  If you live in New England long enough, you will see that color sometimes at twilight and you'll think, "Ah, that's what Parrish meant."  The piece above is called Stars
In 1931 Parrish announced, "I'm done with girls on rocks," and he focused for the next thirty years (until he was 91) on painting nothing but landscapes.  No matter his subject, his process was extremely labor-intensive, involving many layers of paint--always beginning with blue--and varnish.  The Cornish Colony Museum has some wonderful examples of unfinished work that help to illustrate his techniques.  In the museum's pamphlet describing their current exhibition of works by women artists of the colony, there is also a troubling message from founder and Parrish expert, Alma Gilbert-Smith.  This June she stepped down from her position as director of the museum due to poor health.  From the sounds of her message, the museum is struggling to stay open due to cutbacks in grants and donations.  They have shortened their hours and are running with mostly volunteers, so I'm not sure how much longer the museum will survive.  If you are planning to visit New Hampshire or Vermont this summer, I recommend a visit to this hidden jewel.  The countryside there is still old New England with plenty of prime spots for picnics.  And if you linger in the area long enough, maybe you'll catch a Parrish-blue twilight. 


  1. That's fascinating! I had no idea he lived in VT, and I'm always looking for excuses to head up further into that beautiful state.

  2. Obviously, you had a great weekend! Don't you just love learning the history behind a favorite artist? And I love the little added bonus in route to the museum of the covered bridge!

  3. when i live in ma. we would head up to vt. i am so sorry i didn't get a chance to find out more about this artist.

    you have me so interested in your novel, you are writing.

  4. Oh, do head up there! It's a lovely area. We did lots of wildflower-spotting the whole way up.
    I know what you mean, Melissa, about learning about your favorite artists--such a treat. And how much better does it get than crossing over a little covered bridge to find a pretty village and beautiful paintings on the other side?!
    Christina, you are sweet! When I have more done, I'll share a little (teeny tiny) bit about it. :)

  5. I've always had an affinity for the works of Parrish...beautiful examples there! :o)

  6. Any sense of whether Parrish has been talked about in the context of American Transcendentalism? Especially given his presence in New England...I see a real affinity with the Luminists.


  7. I don't know, Nancy, but now I want to find out . . .


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