How Maxfield Parrish Got So Blue

This post gives a good, short biography of Parrish. Enjoy!

Arts Enclave's Blog

Many people, when they hear the name “Maxfield Parrish,” think of a particularly whimsical brilliant blue that soaked the skies of many of his landscapes. In a lifetime that spanned 95 years, over 75 of them actively producing art, his paintings and illustrations wallpapered the consciousness of a country for generations. You probably don’t even realize how many of his artworks you recognize.

A hundred years ago, one in every four households had a Maxfield Parrish print. He illustrated the classic books, The Arabian Nights, and Poems of Childhood, by Eugene Field, and was the illustrator for Mother Goose in Prose (1897) by Frank L. Baum (who later wrote The Wizard of Oz). Long before Norman Rockwell painted his famous Saturday Evening Post covers, Maxfield Parrish graced the covers of Harper’s Weekly, Life,Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, and numerous other magazines of the early 20th century. At…

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Castle Hot Springs, Arizona

In the spring of 1901, the Parrishes returned from the sanatorium at Saranac Lake, where Maxfield had spent the winter recovering from tuberculosis. Dr. Trudeau wanted him to come back in the fall. Although Lydia had enjoyed their stay at Saranac, she dreaded the prospect of having to return for another winter. Fred, as he was known, would have to endure another winter living outside in a glassed-in porch. The winter had been difficult, but it was a turning point for the artist, who, forced by the extreme cold to give up his ink work and watercolor washes, began to work in full color, painting in oils. It wouldn’t be long before his color work would catapult him into the national spotlight.


Desert Without Water, an oil painting by Maxfield Parrish, 1901. The artist posed in cowboy costume for a photograph wife Lydia took for reference.

By a great stroke of luck, instead of having to pay for a winter of enforced cold at Saranac, the Parrishes found themselves headed for the high desert of Arizona, all expenses paid. They spent the winter in a garden surrounded by moonscape: the resort at Castle Creek, where a hot spring fed the valley. Each day, the couple would saddle up and head off on a photo safari in the surrounding desert. By the end of their sojourn, Parrish’s tuberculosis was in remission and he had twenty landscapes unlike any he had done before. In the pure, clear air of Arizona, he had discovered the power of color. Towards the end of his life, Parrish said that, though he painted New England landscapes, the skies in his painting–his famous Parrish Blue–were from Arizona.


Night in the Desert, oil painting by Maxfield Parrish, 1901.

In The Parrish Women, Lydia and Fred spend the night with the other “dudes” camping underneath the stars. The scene is made up, inspired by the above painting.

When the first group of the Western paintings was published in Century, Parrish became an illustrator of the first rank overnight. The accompanying article ran as a serial in three parts. It was the  1902 equivalent of suddenly having an Artstation page with a million followers. A brilliant seventy-year career had begun.

While researching the novel at the Rauner Special Collections library at Dartmouth, I came upon a curious object in a folder: a banner made of hearts cut out of pasteboard. The hearts were strung together with red ribbon. On one side, each heart bore a single, red letter. Together, they spelled out FRED & LYDIA. I eventually determined that this was a gift, probably made by Ellen Shipman, presented to the couple at their going-away party. On the back side of each heart, the party-goers had each signed their names and inscribed a short note.

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Hand-made banner, pasteboard, probably by Ellen Shipman. This one was signed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Note the date (November 2nd, 1901) and Saint-Gaudens’s trademark caricature.

Another imagined scene comes from the following painting. After a day on the trail, Fred and Lydia are back in their room at the resort, discussing the day’s photography. Fred opines that the Indians he photographed must have been from a non-smoking tribe: not one had a cigar on him. This shows Parrish’s racial prejudice, which was common at that time among men of his station. But it also shows his sense of humor.


Pueblo Dwellers, oil by Maxfield Parrish, 1901. The Navajo were probably photographed separately from the pueblo, and then combined for the painting.


Land of Make Believe

Maxfield Parrish 1870 1966 Land of Make Believe 20th Century Paintings Christie s

Land of Make Believe – Maxfield Parrish, 1905. Oil, 40×33″. This image is from the Christies website, from their 2004 sale. The painting sold for $3.5 million USD.

The painting Land of Make Believe was a landmark painting for Maxfield Parrish. It marks the first time that Susan Lewin posed for him (twice, here). This is also the first example of what would come to be known as the “girls on rocks” paintings: young women, classically dressed, enjoying solitude in some magnificent setting. It took Parrish seven years to find a buyer for the image, but as always, his marketing sense was unerring. The public responded in a big way. Thus Parrish shrewdly found a way to do more of the type of painting he loved most: landscape. In fact, he would often wait until a landscape was complete, and only then, using a skillfully cut-out paper figure, decide where to place the girl. After the painting was published, he would sometimes go back and paint out the girl.

Sue Lewin posing for LOMB

Susan Lewin posing for the first time.

In 1905, while she was still living with and working for Stephen Parrish and his cousin Anne, Susan created the above costume for herself, following MP’s instructions and sketches. She then posed for the first time for Parrish’s camera, standing in front of a large canvas or board. You can make out the preliminary line drawing for a new painting. The large format glass plates allowed Parrish to project the photographs onto canvas, to speed the preliminary drawing process.

The image of the painting from Christies, is about the best reproduction I’ve been able to find. Assuming the colors shown are pretty close (it was probably shot from the actual painting), you can get an idea of the state of four-color reproduction in magazines in 1912 by comparing the Christies image with the following from Scribners. Parrish struggled with printers to reproduce his work accurately.

LOMB Scribners 1912

“Land of Make Believe” in Scribner’s, 1912

Parrish’s women

Sue Lewin nude

Susan Lewin, model, muse, and life-long companion of Maxfield Parrish.

Perhaps the most important woman in Maxfield Parrish’s life was Susan Lewin. Sue walked into The Oaks on April 30, 1906, aged sixteen, and didn’t leave for fifty years, when, at age 70, she married for the first time (spoiler alert). She was Parrish’s primary model, costume maker, housekeeper, cook, and she lived with him in the studio building at The Oaks. It’s safe to say Parrish’s great success was due in no small part to Sue Lewin’s uncanny ability to bring to vivid life the characters Parrish imagined. The two were co-creators, though I don’t suppose Parrish ever thought of it that way. Finally, with Lydia away in Georgia for most of their marriage, Susan became his true lifelong companion.

Parrish had several romantic interests during his years at Haverford and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, but it was Lydia Austin who finally captured his heart. Lydia grew up in Woodstown, New Jersey, where her father owned a very prosperous dairy serving Philadelphia.

Lydia A Parrish 1895

Lydia Austin, taken on the occasion of her engagement to Maxfield Parrish, 1895.

After three boys, a girl was born to the Parrishes in 1911. She was named Jean, though Parrish referred to her in her teenage years as a “barracuda,” due to her direct approach. Jean was the only one of the Parrish children who grew up to follow in her father’s footsteps, becoming a successful landscape painter living in New Mexico.

Jean Parrish in hat

Jean Parrish, ca. 1920

A dozen years after Maxfield Parrish began his professional career, he was the toast of the Big Apple, and he and his wife Lydia were invited to the after-show party of the hit Broadway show everyone was talking about, Captain Jinks. There the Parrishes met Ethel Barrymore, the biggest new star on the Great White Way. She visited Cornish once briefly in 1902, then stayed for the summer of 1906. I found a letter at the Rauner Collection from Barrymore to Parrish which made it clear the two were good friends, perhaps more.


Ethel Barrymore as a young starlet of the Broadway stage, early 1900’s.

In his mid-sixties, Parrish met a young ivy league graduate who stole his heart. The girl, Nancy Roelker, was in her early twenties, and was younger than Parrish’s own daughter. The affair continued for four years, as documented by a large cache of letters that have recently come to light. Though outraged, the other women in Parrish’s life–Jean, Lydia, Susan–were constrained by the fear of public exposure, the need to pretend that the marriage is stable, and that all is well.

Secret letters

“Maxfield Parrish: The Secret Letters” by Alma Gilbert

Auto-touring in 1904

Main_Street Windsor VT 1910

Main Street, Windsor, Vermont, 1910.

Back in 1904, travelling by “motor” (automobile) was an adventurous thing to do. For one thing, the roads were unpaved. For another, they were un-numbered and unmarked. It wouldn’t be until the 1920’s that a road system designed for cars came to be a commonplace. When Lydia and Fred (Maxfield) Parrish decided, as recorded in Lydia’s diary, to travel by motor to Annisquam (Cape Ann, Massachusetts) and then to Dublin, New Hampshire, the roads were little more than dirt trails casually linking far-flung farms with villages. Muddy roads were not just messy–they could spell disaster.


Participants in the 1904 run to the St. Louis World’s Fair. Note the rear tire, equipped for muddy conditions.

The lack of road signs and paved roads led to the formation of a group dedicated to raising public awareness of the need for highway improvements. They called themselves the American Automobile Association. You may recall receiving a TripTiks package in the mail from AAA, back in the day, complete with routes highlighted in yellow. Well, AAA began as a sort of early Mapquest, publishing booklets with route descriptions (see below). If you wanted to drive from one town to another, you looked it up in the book (and hoped the route was in there!). Then you followed the description, which was nothing more than a listing of landmarks. There were few road signs.

1917 road directions dublin

1917 road directions.

Compounding the difficulties of motoring, of course, was the notorious unreliability of the machine itself. The new, pneumatic (air-filled, as opposed to bone-jolting solid) tires had a ridiculously short useful life. Get a flat tire, and you’re on your own. AAA’s roadside service would not exist for many years, and gasoline “service” stations were few and far between. Get stuck in the mud, and you’ll likely have to endure the laughs of the local Good Samaritan as he pulls your vehicle out with his team of reliable horses. In 1904, being on the bleeding edge of travel technology could be very frustrating.


An early pioneer of the automobile, going nowhere fast. Note the license plate number: 012.

The Gardens of the Cornish Colony

During my research for Leaving the Land of Make-Believe, I discovered so many fascinating things about the Cornish Colony, founded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1885. Cornish, and its nearby sibling, the Dublin Colony, would make for an interesting nonfiction book, but since this is a work of fiction, the story comes first. It was painful to leave so much on the cutting room floor. Luckily, this blog allows me to highlight some of the more interesting items found during the five years of my research.

SP in his garden at Northcote

Stephen Parrish tending his flower gardens at Northcote, in Cornish, New Hampshire, ca. 1913.

The Cornish Colony thrived during a period called the Country Place Era, and unless you’re a landscape architect, you’ve probably never heard of it. It began around 1895, the year Maxfield and Lydia Parrish married, and, like the Cornish Colony, petered out by the Depression. From an intro to the exhibition “A Genius for Place”:

The American Country Place Era evolved during a period of significant upheaval in American history. At the close of the nineteenth century, deteriorating city conditions prompted many Americans newly wealthy from the industrial revolution to spend their fortunes on luxurious country estates. Landscape architecture was a new profession at the time, and practitioners and their clients were eager to develop an American aesthetic. An emerging generation of landscape architects were deeply influenced by the distinctive landscape of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—a collaboration between architect Daniel Hudson Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted—with its bridges, fountains, and crystalline buildings that evoked a perfect, classical world.

While wealthy city-dwellers built themselves mansions like Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C or Winterthur in Delaware to escape the summer heat and overcrowded cities, artists were drawn to the area just south of Hanover, home of Dartmouth. The great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens decided in 1885 to purchase a run-down roadside tavern in Cornish, remodel it, and name it Aspet. The property is now a National Historic Site. Saint-Gaudens invited his friends to join him, and little by little, the colony grew. The avuncular lawyer C.C. Beaman had bought up thousands of acres as farms failed and people migrated to the Middle West. He sold the old farms to Saint-Gaudens’s friends–people like Stephen Parrish, an etcher from Philadelphia and father of Maxfield. Another friend was Thomas Dewing, who gets a short mention in the novel. Dewing was a talented amateur horticulturist who encouraged newcomers to plant gardens. Some sources give Dewing the credit for starting the Cornish garden craze, but really, the colony simply went with the times. Country estates were all the rage. With cheap land and labor, most of the artists had “cottages” built, though we would call them mansions.


Harlakenden, home of Winston Churchill and summer White House for Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1914.

One of the main characters of my novel, Winston Churchill (the American novelist), had Charles Platt design a Georgian monster with three wings, all in brick, and named it Harlakenden (all of the cottages had names). Both Platt and Ellen Shipman, in fact, were featured in the above-mentioned exhibition. Platt designed many of the colony homes, and with Ellen’s help, designed their gardens, as well. His designs carried a distinct Italian influence, and his cottages were called villas. His book, Italian Gardens, was very influential. The Cornish Colony was often featured in magazine articles. Maxfield Parrish complained that his home, The Oaks, had been photographed so much, its corners were getting rounded. So it seems the colony was as much about gardens as it was about art. Reading Lydia Parrish’s diary, it becomes apparent that the colonists were extremely social creatures. Nearly every luncheon or dinner was a social occasion. No wonder Parrish complained about the “constant interruptions.”

Further reading:

A Place of Beauty by Alma Gilbert and Judith Tankard

The Artist’s Garden by Anna O. Marley

Lydia and the Children

Lydia with childrenAlthough Maxfield Parrish took many photographs for his illustration work, he also, on occasion, took snapshots of his family. While searching through the 83 boxes of the Papers of Maxfield Parrish at Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections, I found this lovely portrait of MP’s family in an old family album. Lydia seems to be seating toddler Jean next to her brothers, and Jean’s giving Daddy a look that makes it clear she is none too happy with the situation. The boys are, from left, Dillwyn, Steve, and Max Jr. Judging by the dirt on their knees and their exhausted faces, it seems the boys have been doing some serious playing. Lydia here is almost forty, and her hair seems to be starting to turn gray. The late afternoon sun is sinking just behind them.

LAP and Jean

The above image is from a glass negative, and the quality of the color is astounding, considering the photograph was taken around 1913. Lydia, looking pensive, sits next to Jean, who’s a bit older here. They’re holding hollyhock blooms.