The populist legacy of Philly's Maxfield Parrish

Photos – user-contributed – Old+King+Cole36
Photograph of a portion of Maxfield Parrish’s “Old King Cole” (1906).

This month marks 147 years since the birth of Maxfield Parrish, among the most influential artists to ever emerge from Philadelphia.

His masterly depictions of bucolic landscapes populated with androgynous nymphs captured a timeless nostalgia that appealed to young and old alike. In 1925, his mass-produced prints — including his famous Daybreak (1922) — hung in nearly a quarter of households across the country.

In addition to his individual creative works, Parrish generated a vast portfolio of images designed explicitly for mass consumption. He illustrated candy boxes and the pages of popular children’s books, and provided visual aids for articles in magazines, including Life and Harper’s Bazaar.

This body of work, the bedrock of his financial success, was as ubiquitous as it was outstanding.

Norman Rockwell called Parrish his “idol,” no small praise coming from an iconic peer and fellow artist of “The Golden Age of Illustration,” a time period stretching roughly from 1880 to 1920 during which American illustration flourished as mass print grew in popularity.

Born on July 25, 1870, Parrish came into his own in Philadelphia. What little encouragement he may have received for his artistic pursuits from the elite Quaker society he inhabited was made up for by the support of his parents.

Parrish first attended Haverford College, but the Quaker institution lacked a formal arts program. He moved on to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and then briefly to the Drexel Institute of Art, where he met his wife, Lydia Austen.

Henry Thouron, a widely respected composition professor, reflected on Parrish’s work on display in Philadelphia around this time: “It is safe to say that all his work will be in swift growing demand.”

He moved into an apartment at the intersection of 12th and Spruce in 1895. He would leave the city for good three years later, buying property in the Cornish Art Colony in New Hampshire.

Parrish would remain near the Connecticut River Valley for most of his life, pulling creative inspiration for his work from the natural environment he loved. By 1910 he was a household name and a wealthy man, earning $100,000 a year when the average American worker would be lucky to make an annual salary of $550.

This kind of success was unique for an artist, especially one of Parrish’s artistic credibility.

“If something had a picture by Maxfield Parrish on it, it sold better than anything else,” observes Laurence S. Cutler, cofounder of the National Museum of American Illustration in Rhode Island. This applied to his commercial work as well as to his prints, the sales of which ranked alongside those of Cézanne and van Gogh.

He also attracted the attention of fellow artists and cultural figures. Andy Warhol later collected his works. But any effort to turn his oeuvre into the exclusive purview of the cognoscenti was doomed to fail.

When Parrish died in 1966 at the age of 95, the Boston Herald eulogized him by celebrating his mass appeal: “Today Parrish is ‘in,’ but this only means that he is back in vogue with the current batch of intelligentsia and a group of taste makers who are busy creating taste for each other. He has never been ‘out’ with the public.”

Groundbreaking yet accessible, Philadelphia’s Parrish was — and remains — a fundamentally populist artist.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org