Master of mass appeal
Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make Believe
The verbal halo that circulates around Maxfield Parrish usually includes words like “master,” “magic,” and “make believe.”
Amending any of those with “of marketing” would not compromise its accuracy.
Parrish was an early-20th-century art star, wildly popular and financially successful, who churned out a prolific body of magazine covers, illustrations for children’s books, drawings and lithographs for product advertisements, and murals commissioned by Vanderbilts and Astors.
The fascination lives on. The Nevada Museum of Art reports that its members’ exhibition previews usually attract about 400 visitors, but more like a thousand attended last Friday’s preview of Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make Believe.
Parrish’s popular appeal isn’t hard to explain—his images are superbly well-crafted and easy to digest, recognizable as “imaginative” yet not too weird—but the leap between the acclaim that won the hearts of consumers 100 years ago and the scholarly approval that got him a nationally traveling, posthumous museum retrospective is tougher to substantiate.
Parrish is beloved, in part, for his technical expertise, claims of which are unassailable. His paintings have a dazzling level of detail and a seductive surface quality that impress even those of us who are bored by realism.
But some of the conceptual and aesthetic content is hard to swallow. The expert combination of decadence and restraint in Parrish’s photographs and the delightfully dark and complicated childhood world of his fairy-tale illustrations don’t carry into most of his ads (understandably) or his paintings. Scenes of dreamy young women lounging in lush gardens are pleasantly lavish, but some of their ubiquitous colors—sunrise-peachy rose and straight-from-the-tube cyan—build up in the eye and tip the scales toward kitsch. In the painting “Afterglow (Winter Sunrise),” the sleepy, picturesque town of Plainfield, N.H., radiates wholesome, incandescent warmth that conjures the taste of sugar and insuppressible thoughts of Thomas Kincade.
Parrish was in the right place at the right time. The 20th century’s pendulum of social permissiveness, swinging from leniency to restraint and back again, afforded him a couple good solid decades to indulge his fantasies. Luckily for him, his career spanned from the Gay ‘90s to the Roaring ‘20s (and later), when the Art Deco-inspired doors were open to a mostly-anything-goes-stylistic approach. (He lived until the mid-1960s; pendulumwise, an enviable run.) Admirably, Parrish took full advantage of his resources, whirling into his mix of reference points the spacious, gold-lit West (he lived in Sedona, Ariz., for a while) and the goddess couture of Greek mythology; smearing purple Californian haze over New England towns; placing local lasses in English-looking forests or Swiss-seeming mountains; crossing gender boundaries by using a photo of his young, nude self on a porch as the study for a painting of a young, nude woman in a garden.
At his most intriguing, Parrish could be compared to a deeper Norman Rockwell, a softer Aubrey Beardsley, a cleaner-minded Henry Darger or a precursor to the lovely oddness of Maurice Sendak.
In a lot of instances, he lives up to the title “Master of Make Believe.” An 1887 calendar featuring a sparse drawing of monkey-like pixies climbing and cavorting, is a prime example of where Parrish’s work radiates with personality and gives viewers a peek into a deeply cultivated imagination.
But there’s some risk in trying to please everyone. Much of the work is a peek into a deeply cultivated sense of what sells.