The great American artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish was born on July 25, 1870 in Philadelphia. Born Frederick Parrish, he died more than ninety-five years later on March 30, 1966 in Plainfield, New Hampshire. In between, he created some of the most stunning, iconic, and memorable paintings and illustrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And while he never lived in Greenwich Village, it did play an important role in the development of his career, and in the public’s consciousness of his work.
Parrish’s paintings, illustrations, murals and prints in many ways defy categorization, though they are some of the most recognizable and beloved works of popular art of their time.
While he is in some ways associated with the ‘Belle Epoque’ and Art Noveau style of poster making and illustration prominent at the turn of the last century, his work is often associated with or believed to have impacted everyone from Salvador Dali and the surrealists, to Norman Rockwell (who called him “one of my gods”), Andy Warhol (a great collector of his work) and the Pop artists, Op Art, and the realists, photorealists, and superrealists.
At the height of his popularity in 1925, Parrish’s prints were said to be found hanging on the walls of one in every four American households. A survey at the time found Parrish, along with Cezanne and Van Gogh, to be the favorite artist amongst Americans.
His super-saturated colors were just one of his many trademarks, especially his blues. In fact, a certain shade of cobalt blue was so strongly associated with him that it has come to be known as “Parrish Blue.”
By 1910, well before the height of his popularity in the 1920s, Parrish was earning $100,000 per year for his work, when the average American home cost about $2,000. He was one of the most commercially successful artists ever in the United States, and his painting ‘Daybreak’ was the most widely sold art print of the 20th century.
In 1931, Parrish stopped painting the mythic subjects for which he had become so famous, saying “I’m done with girls on rocks.” He switched to landscapes, largely inspired by his New England surroundings. While these later paintings earned the respect of art critics, they never garnered quite the popular following his earlier signature works did. While he painted well into his 90s, by World War II and the post-war years, Parrish was almost forgotten in the popular consciousness.
It was just towards the end of his life, in the 1960s, that his works enjoyed a revival of appreciation, and reemerged in the popular imagination. Unsurprisingly during that decade in which pop art and op art dominated museums and galleries, and psychedelic themes increasingly inspired popular art forms, Parrish and his works were embraced again by a new generation of art critics and consumers.
But back in the early part of the 20th century, two institutions with roots still visible today in Greenwich Village were responsible for helping to bring Maxfield Parrish to the masses.
The first was Collier’s Weekly, which at the time Parrish was producing covers and illustrations for them had its printing plant and offices at 416-424 West 13th Street/17-37 Little West 12th Street in today’s Meatpacking District (GVSHP got this building and its surroundings landmarked in 2003). Collier’s was a well-respected and widely read publication specializing in muckraking articles and finely detailed illustrations. Parrish worked for them from 1904 to 1913 (the Collier’s building opened on West 13th Street in 1902), and for six of those years he was contracted to work for them exclusively.
Parrish also created advertising, including catalog covers, for Wanamaker’s Department Store. Wanamaker’s was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries one of the most prominent and successful department stores in America, beginning in Philadelphia, Parrish’s hometown.
But by 1896, when Parrish began working for them, Wanamakers had expanded to New York City, with a grand department store (formerly the A.T.Stewart Store) covering the full block bounded by Broadway and 4th Avenue, 9th and 10th Streets. As their operations expanded in New York, fueled in part by the successful promotions designed by Parrish, they built an even larger annex/warehouse across the street in 1903, covering the full block bounded by Broadway and 4th Avenue, 8th and 9th Street.
The Wanamaker Department Store was eventually demolished, and in 1960 replaced with the Stewart House apartment building which stands on the site today. However, the Wanamaker Annex and Warehouse, built during those heady, booming days when Parrish was promoting Wanamaker, still stands at 770 Broadway, and now houses the New York offices of Facebook and many other tech firms.