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Nymphs & Fairies

"Maxfield Parrish, Master of Make Believe" at the Brooks.



Close your eyes and imagine your grandmother's parlor. If you're of a certain generation, the room's walls are papered with a flowery pattern, and fantastical prints of sun-kissed, androgynous nymphs frolicking with Mother Nature are hung with care.

In the corner of the print there is a signature: Maxfield Parrish, one of the greatest and most enduring painters of the 20th century.

According to Sylvia Yount, a curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, by the 1920s, one in 10 American households had a Parrish print on display. "You could order works like Daybreak through the mail, framed or unframed, which the middle- and working-class loved," she says.

Parrish gained prominence as an illustrator, collaborating with Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum on Mother Goose in Prose in 1897 and providing pictures for Eugene Field's Poems of Childhood, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales, and classics such as Arabian Nights. Soon, he was everywhere, sketching covers for magazines such as Hearst and Life and drawing advertisements for national brands such as Colgate toothpaste and Oneida Cutlery. He painted giant, family-friendly murals in public spaces and smaller works featuring statuesque nudes and breathtaking landscapes.


An exhibit of Parrish's oeuvre, which spans nearly seven decades, is currently on display at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

"He came of age during the American Renaissance, when there was a whole different attitude toward producing illustrations for mass media," explains Yount, a Parrish scholar. "He was a real pop artist -- literally a household name yet also valued as a fine artist."

A product of the Victorian era, Parrish flourished. His paintings continued the "cult of the child" instituted by such authors as Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie. He reinterpreted phenomena like the Cottingley Fairies photographs (images snapped by two young English girls in the 1920s, purporting to prove the existence of fairies) into portraits of sleek, modern creatures posed atop waterfalls and jagged cliffs.

"Parrish had an amazing childhood, and his sense of fantasy and creative imagination was nurtured from the beginning," says Yount.

He honed his craft first at the Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences in his native Philadelphia, where he studied under the great illustrator Howard Pyle; later, he attended Haverford College and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

By alternating thin layers of oil paint and varnish, his paintings captured and reflected light, producing a dazzling effect. Once a work was finished, however, it could be easily reproduced for mass markets, and Parrish made a healthy living off royalties from calendar and print work, as well as his magazine illustrations.

His murals were humorous takes from the storybook genre, including larger-than-life allegorical paintings of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and Ole King Cole, which survive today in San Francisco's Palace Hotel and New York's St. Regis Hotel, respectively.

"He was a man of his time," says Yount. "Look at N.C. Wyeth, who was always a frustrated painter, embarrassed by his illustration work. Not Parrish. He never had that complex. He had a strong ego, but he didn't have any issues with being viewed as an illustrator or a professional artist."

Nevertheless, in the early 1930s, Parrish did take one stand, telling the Associated Press, "I'm done with girls on rocks!" True to his word, for the rest of his life, he focused on landscape work, with nary a nymph or fairy in sight.

Although his popularity was eventually superseded by Norman Rockwell, whose true-to-life illustrations dominated the American mass market by the middle of the last century, Parrish persevered, continuing to paint past his 91st birthday.

In the last few decades, renewed interest in Parrish's work has spurred reappraisals from museums and private collectors alike.

In 1999, Yount supervised a Parrish retrospective at his alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she worked as chief curator. His original paintings, she confirms, are difficult to find, although there is a huge market for Parrish prints and first-edition books that contain his illustrations.

"Parrish lived a long life [he died in 1966, at 95], and he was productive during so many different cultural and stylistic movements," Yount says. "There aren't many artists who stay true to their original vision for such a long stretch, but Maxfield Parrish did just that."

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