Maxfield Parrish is the most reproduced American artist and his works remain highly desirable on the collecting market. Though Parrish was a private man, his art is known throughout the world. From his estate, The Oaks, in New Hampshire he created hundreds of illustrations in magazines, advertisements, and children’s books. He is often referred to as the Golden Age Illustrator, but his works extend beyond that medium. He created prints, posters, calendars, greeting cards, and many more items, such as tins and lamps. Proving his valued collectible status, his picture Daybreak sold for four million dollars at auction recently. However, with a good eye and research any collector can afford Parrish’s art.
Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) was the son of artist and etcher Stephen Parrish (1846-1938). Heavily influenced by his father’s work and trips to Europe as a child, Parrish attended Haverford College for architecture and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Married with four children, Parrish began a life-long affair with his primary model, Sue Lewin, originally the children’s nanny. Lydia Parrish avoided scandal and chose to remain married to Parrish, even though they lived separately and he traveled frequently. Proudest of his estate, parts of The Oaks were utilized as backgrounds in his pictures, reflecting his love of architecture. Parrish was known for his sense of humor and obsession with privacy, refusing to talk with reporters or read any critiques of his work.
His first illustration was published in Frank Baum’s Mother Goose, 1897. In the 1910s and 1920s he worked mainly for magazines. His largest project (1911-1916) was the Florentine Fete Mural commissioned by Ladies Home Journal. His perception of his art is best embodied best by his reaction to the popularity of the mural:
“The Endeavor is to present a painting which will give pleasure without tiring the intellect. Something beautiful to look upon. A good place to be in. Nothing more.”
Parrish focused on painting in the 1920s. His greatest pieces from that period include Daybreak (1922) and Enchantment (1926). During this time, The House of Art published prints due to popular demand. Another shift occurred in his work in 1931 when he left behind his usual themes of androgynous figures in fantastical settings for landscapes. Known as his quiet period, in 1930-1960 all his work, except Collier covers, were landscapes, (see his Brown & Bigelow calendars). In 1961 he composed his last work, Away from it All, but lived to see his own revival in the 1960s before dying at The Oaks in 1966.
Though Parrish used models, he never painted a person live. He chose to photograph his model and transfer the negative onto glass plates. The background was already painted before adding people. He then would project the human images upon paper or canvas. Either a sketch or stencil was produced and then laid upon the final product. His painting technique contributes a lot to his style. Called glazing, Parrish used varnish between each layer of oil paint. Since varnish took weeks to dry, he often worked on multiple projects at once. For more about Parrish’s life and works please see Maxfield Parrish by Coy Ludwig.
Experience and a good eye are best while collecting Parrish pieces. Due to his prolific life in New England, Parrish works are scarcer and higher priced on the West Coast. Collectors should be aware of condition, color, rarity, and size. It is best to utilize multiple factors to determine a real Parrish due to the plethora of reproductions both made in the early 20th century, called old reproductions, and those made today, new reproductions. Also, many sellers will detach illustrations from books and frame them for sale. Cropping is common; especially when there was damage to the piece, but over cropping is a sign of severe damage or a reproduction.
Knowing the environmental factors that can effect Parrish’s work is the first step towards being a wise collector. Since his major medium was paper, the aging process heavily effects value and many factors lead to the deterioration of the paper and color including: temperature, air and light. Ideally, his works should be kept in 45-55% humidity at about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Without humidity the paper will turn brittle, but with too much humidity the paper softens. Also, air, carrying dust, spores, ash and bacteria, activates acids in the paper, destroying it over time. Often air seeps in due to bad framing or during the framing process. If, during the latter, the paper was exposed to too much air and oil from human hands, small brownish gray spots occur over time. One can clean the paper with mild soap, but it is best to see a professional conservator. Overexposure to light leads to bleached colors and yellowing. Underexposure to light, combined with some humidity and bad ventilation, creates a breeding ground for bacteria and insects. It is essential that collectors’ have a good balance of light and a well-framed work to stay in good condition.
To insure a real Parrish work, one must know the signs of a reproduction. Newer printing processes create shiny, more brilliant color. Also the shaded areas will appear blurry in a reproduction. Some sellers have been known to soak reproductions in coffee or tea, peel back the original backings, and insert a reproduction with a period frame. Therefore, an original backing does not guarantee an authentic picture. Backings are often redone, and some prefer “museum framing” or the use of rag board as a new backing. However, the value goes down with a redone backing. Also, deteriorating old frames can cause damage to the piece and are often replaced. A new frame does not equal a reproduction; so ask questions about any previous damage. Perhaps the most important factor in telling a reproduction is its size. Cropping lowers the value and is often a sign of past damage. Also, many reproductions are larger than the original, so know the size of the piece you are looking for. If there is no frame, the paper itself reveals the truth; older paper is heavier and the back will show patina, a brownish color due to the paper’s age.
Most importantly, use all the tools you can to expose a reproduction, because sometimes the seller is unaware. Some fading is to be expected in original pieces, so if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The best advice to any collector is to learn more by attending auctions and antique shows. Only by first-hand experience can a collector become a smart collector.
Flacks, Erwin. Maxfield Parrish. Collector’s Press: Portland, 1998.
The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin. Pomegranate Books: San Francisco, 1990.
“Maxfield Parrish.” http://en.wikipedia….. 12 July 2007.