Maxfield Parrish’s glowing landscapes and beautiful visions of sunlight and moonlight, his figures radiating the simple, almost angelic, postures of life were the trademark of an artist at the top of the illustration field at the turn of the century. His larger-than-life villains and smaller-than-life figures in landscapes flowed freely from the vivid imagination of a simple man, straightforward in his outlook on life. To capture the single sunbeam which would reflect the beauty of the world as he saw it and to pass that beam through a prism of color was his style. He was alone in its mastery and it earned him the respect and recognition of the art world and the viewing public across the globe.
The first child of Stephen Parrish, a Philadelphia shopkeeper and talented artist, and his wife, Elizabeth, was Frederick, born on July 25, 1870. He later took his maternal grandmother’s maiden name, Maxfield, and was known as such his entire professional career. He was a young man, curious about life and blessed with an artistic talent encouraged by his father. The many influences on the young Parrish shaped the man of generosity and love, and the artist of grace and dedication.
The Parrish family were Quakers; and although Maxfield was not a practicing member, this Quaker background stressing hard work and sacrifice, developed the qualities he maintained throughout his whole life. However, his religious background did hinder his formal education. Art was not considered a worthwhile field of study at Haverford College, the Quaker institution where he enrolled to study architecture in 1888. He later withdrew from the Society of Friends, the Quaker church to which he belonged by birth, when he married outside that society.
Maxfield began his formal art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He studied there until 1894 while working at his father’s studio in Annisquam, Mass., and later at his father’s home, “Northcote,” built in 1893, in the Connecticut River Valley town of Cornish, N.H. These were favorite spots of solitude for Maxfield in his early days of study. He began his long and productive commercial career in Philadelphia where he occupied studios until 1898. However, his need for uninterrupted work time and his love of the Connecticut Valley countryside prompted him to build a home, “The Oaks” in Windsor, Bt. On the New Hampshire border across the valley from his father’s home in Cornish. Maxfield’s wife, the former Lydia Austin, an art instructor he met while auditing a class of Howard Pyle’s at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, raised four children at “The Oaks”- John, Maxfield, Jr., Stephen and Jean. “The Oaks” was a favorite stop in the summer for the intellectuals who lived in the “Cornish colony,” as the picturesque valley came to be known. In the winter it was often snowbound. Maxfield flourished in this atmosphere of seclusion for his work and an open social life amongst his friends.
Maxfield had established his reputation with his magazine and children’s book illustrations, as well as his poster work of the 1890’s. He became much in demand for advertising work. However, advertising art became more of a burden to Maxfield who disliked the “men with good intentions” who were a constant distraction. He preferred to make his pictures for reproductions as calendars and art prints.
Art prints of his works had been available since 1904 but by the 1920’s the demand was so great that The House of Art in New York began to commission his works specifically for reproduction in great volume. His calendars for the Edison Mazda Lamp division of the General Electric Company, the one advertising client with whom he had a lasting relationship, were so popular that over a million reproductions were sold each year and became his primary artform for many years. His relationship with The House of Art lasted until 1928 and he painted his last Edison Mazda calendar in 1934. During Maxfield’s last 30 years as an artist, he painted landscapes exclusively. Many were reproduced in print form by the Brown and Bigelow Company, a major calendar distributor.