Maxfield Parrish, reconsidered

By GREG COOK  |  August 7, 2012
It was — and remains — an escapist art, for fleeing everyday life and Modernism — with a healthy dash of sex. In Morning (1922), a blonde woman sits on a rocky mountain outcropping with her arms around knees (much like Century Midsummer Holiday Number, but this time clothed in vaguely Grecian attire), staring dreamingly up into billowing clouds. In Venetian Lamplighters (1922), an "exotic" woman, a male boatman, and an androgynous nude youth in a boat light a Venetian canal lamppost while in the background sailboats ply the waters under a turquoise dusk. In Reverie (1926), two women lounge at the edge of a fountain in the shadow of a massive tree. Such escapism is Parrish's charm, as well as the source of (deserved) criticism for being shallow. Personally, I'm seduced by his fantasies (how different are they from Picasso's celebrated drawings of randy minotaurs, satyrs, and naked ladies?) plus his technical mastery.

Parrish's paintings appear sharp-focus photographic because, in fact, he often laid out his compositions by tracing from his own photographs of posed models, actual landscapes, and miniature castles that he constructed, then he painted them with the Renaissance technique of glazing. He began with detailed paintings in single colors — blue or gray — and covered them with thin liquid layers of pure color. This is what gives his hues such wattag: the colors are undiluted and their transparency allows light to glow through them, similar to stained glass.

Parrish's reliance on photos and posed models may also account for the signature stillness that pervades his scenes. It is not the abruptly halted motion familiar from photographs, but a sort of languor. As in some dreams, it seems as if everything — even time — has stopped.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Maxfield Parrish, National Museum of American Illustration, National Museum of American Illustration
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