Welcoming Daybreak with Maxfield Parrish

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Today, I'm fulfilling another reader request, this time for America's most-reproduced artist, Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966). Readers Hoya, Nerak, Vanessa, and Johnny Cat all asked for "Feel Art Again" coverage of the prolific illustrator whose colorful works are so well-known that there's even a color—Parrish blue—named after him. So, a little more about the man and "Daybreak," his 1922 masterpiece that he referred to as his "great painting."

1. While his colors may be famous, Frederick Maxfield Parrish started out working in black and white. His lengthy illustration career began with one commission: to illustrate Mother Goose in Prose, an 1897 work by L. Frank Baum. The book actually launched both men's careers, since it was Baum's very first.

2. Parrish had several tricks for creating his unique paintings and illustrations. For his landscapes, which he began in 1931, he usually built models of the landscapes and tested several lighting setups. Once he determined the best view, he would photograph the set-up to use as the basis for the painting. He was able to accurately depict the flow of geometrically patterned clothing by photographing someone (usually himself) draped in a large piece of cloth featuring the pattern in stark black and white. The photo would be made into a transparency and then projected onto the canvas for Parrish to trace and fill in the black portions with graphite. Color-wise, he mentally assessed the color components of each work and then painted them separately, separating each layer of color with varnish. And finally, to add depth, Parrish would layer cut-out objects or figures onto canvases, covering them with thick, clear glaze.

3. The naked figure in "Daybreak" is Parrish's youngest child, his daughter Jean; the reclining figure is Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan.

4. Even in his own day, Parrish was immensely popular, the highest paid commercial artist and muralist in the U.S., illustrating for the best magazines as well as creating advertisements for the top brands. "Daybreak" was commissioned in 1920 for the sole purpose of reproduction, to be distributed to the American public as a color lithographic print. It went on to be the most reproduced painting in American history. One 1925 survey estimated that as many as 1 in every 4 households had a "Daybreak" print on its wall. It has outsold both Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans" and Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper." The original was purchased in 2006 at a Christie's auction for $7.6 million, a Parrish record.

5. Parrish's second child of four, his son Maxfield Parrish Jr., made significant contributions to the creation of the first self-developing camera at the Polaroid Corporation.

6. Norman Rockwell, an American illustrator revered in his own right, once said of Parrish, "When I was in art school I admired him. He was one of my gods."

A (slightly) larger version of "Daybreak" is available here.

Fans of Maxfield Parrish should check out The Knave of Hearts and The Arabian Nights, both of which he illustrated, as well as Alma M. Gilbert's essay Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe.

Current Exhibits featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
Frida Kahlo (San Francisco: June 14 - Sept. 28, 2008)
Alphonse Mucha (Madrid: through Aug. 31, 2008)
The Glass Experience, feat. Dale Chihuly (Chicago: through Sept. 1, 2008)
The Power of Place, feat. Maxfield Parrish (Vermont: through Oct. 26, 2008)

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. E-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details on current art exhibits or suggestions of artists to cover.

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June 17, 2008 - 2:10am
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