What is it about a girl on a rock? For decades that imagery has appeared in art, illustration, photography, and advertising (and more than a few men’s personal fantasties ) So it makes sense that the prolific and popular 20th century artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish, would produce many works with the girls on rocks theme. All highly idealized, all fanciful, vividly colored and meticulously executed.
Son of an engraver and landscape artist father, Maxfield Parrish was a Philadelphia native. After attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studying under the renowned Howard Pyle, Parrish soon found himself in the midst of what is termed the “Golden Age of Illustration”, at the turn of the century. In fact, he became one of its illustrious shining stars. When the great Norman Rockwell calls you his “idol”, you have definitely made your mark.
Hired for commission after commission, Parrish created the illustrations for the popular children’s books of the day, like Mother Goose, The Arabian Nights, and countless magazine covers for Colliers, Harper’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Maxfield Parrish enjoyed a steady income and tremendous popularity, at the height of his fame receiving over $2000 per illustration. He and his wife Lydia settled in Cornish, New Hampshire, where they lived comfortably off the revenue from advertising royalties and frequently entertained a virtual who’s who of guests, among them President WIlson and his wife Ellen, journalist Walter Lippman, and the legendary actress Ethel Barrymore, just to name a few.
With the luxury of financial security, Parrish decided to turn his attention to oil painting. This allowed him to not only choose his own subjects but to work from life models. One of Parrish’s favorite models was Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of the famous orator, lawyer, and politician William Jennings Bryant. She is the model for this painting, Wild Geese. The pose, incidentally, is the “upward dog” in yoga. Yay Kitty! Namaste
This is Kitty again in Canyon, from 1923:
It’s been a fairly common practice for artists to enlist their children as models for their art. Matisse famously used his daughter Marguerite and Maxfield Parrish followed in Matisse’s footsteps when he used his daughter Jean for several of his works. This is Jean as a lovely teenager, in Stars from 1926:
Though his images may have been dreamy and imaginative, giving off a feeling of “make-believe” and almost mythical in nature, Maxfield Parrish’s painting technique was, in reality, very methodical and labor-intensive. He would apply thin layers of varnish in between layers of opaque pigment, repeatedly, until he achieved the desired effect. His uncanny knack for using color, particularly blue, led to the creation of a specific shade of cobalt named “Parrish blue” in his honor. You can read Parrish himself explaining his painting technique in depth on this informative page.
Here is Jean again in Ecstasy. Parrish created this work shortly before Jean went off to Smith College. It is perhaps an affectionate tribute of farewell from a father to his daughter, now an adult, embarking on her independent life. I find the whole standing on a rocky crag while looking upwards toward the sky, a very apt visual metaphor. Exultant, with arms raised confidently and the world at her feet, she is ready to venture into new discoveries:
Susan Lewin first came to the Parrish family as a 16 year-old au pair for the Parrish children, but her role over the years expanded to include housekeeper, studio assistant, model and possibly Maxfield’s lover. Having modeled for more paintings, murals, and illustrations than any of his other models, Susan Lewin can be considered Maxfield Parrish’s most important and influential muse. That her close companionship with the artist lasted well over 50 years, only solidifies her muse status. This is Susan in Griselda from 1910. A beautiful standing pose:
Then, in 1931, Maxfield Parrish famously announced to the Associated Press, “I’m done with girls on rocks”. Whaaaat??? Done? How could he? And his new genre? Landscapes. Boooooo!!!