Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rhapsody in Blue

Born on this date in 1870, Maxfield Parrish epitomized the wave of great American illustration around the beginning of the 20th century. When Parrish asked Howard Pyle, teacher of N.C. Wyeth and many other great illustrators of that generation, to take him on as a student, Pyle told Parrish, after looking at his work, that he had nothing to teach him. After suffering tuberculosis and a nervous breakdown in 1900, Parrish’s medium of choice shifted from illustration to oil painting, but he never lost that touch for imaginative narrative in his works. Daybreak (above) stands as Parrish’s most reproduced image. Few houses in the 1920s didn’t have something done by Parrish somewhere, either a reproduction hanging on the wall or an illustration on a magazine cover. Few artists could create such imaginary worlds as Parrish.

While working in the Curtis Building in Philadelphia for many years, I had the daily pleasure of walking past Parrish’s beautiful glass mosaic, The Dream Garden, which he co-created with Louis Comfort Tiffany and his team. My wife Annie and I had our wedding photos taken in front of that mosaic, which added a magical touch to our already magical day. The sense of wonder and unreal beauty in Parrish’s works is breathtaking. Parrish’s paintings are some of the few that actually look good in reproduction, thanks mainly to his own knowledge of the printing process and his cooperation with the pressmen of Curtis Publishing to get the colors right. The transcendent blue of such works as Ecstasy (above) soon became known as “Parrish blue,” since it was so identifiable with the artist himself.

Although Parrish did attend classes at the PAFA, which helped sharpen his eye, nobody could have taught him to create landscapes such as that in Moonlight (above). Parrish’s fashioning of the mountains in all their textured cragginess captures the moonlight so romantically. Many critics consider Parrish’s work too light or overly romantic to be considered “serious” art, an aftereffect, perhaps, of his wide popularity during his heyday. Personally, I think there’s more than room enough in the canon of art to fit in Parrish and his poetic, magical skies of blue.

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