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American painter Maxfield Parrish and the decorative power of dreamy blues

The palette of the man celebrated for his masterful escapist depictions of celestial skies is the ideal salve for our times

colour pioneer maxfield parrish
Bridgeman Images

‘No matter what art critics may think,’ penned a Time magazine writer in February 1936, ‘art dealers know that, as far as the sale of expensive reproductions is concerned, the three most popular artists in the world are Van Gogh, Cézanne and Maxfield Parrish.’ If anything, the reporter may have understated the case.

maxfield parrish colour feature
Portrait of Maxfield Parrish
Alamy Stock Photo

Parrish was born in Philadelphia in 1870 into an artistic family that nurtured his talent. By the time he went to art school he was making a living producing illustrations for magazines, and it wasn’t long before he moved on to illustrating calendars, creating prints with a mass-market appeal. He was proudly commercial, calling himself ‘a businessman with a brush’. And business boomed.

maxfield parrish colour pioneer
‘All’ombra dei cipressi’ wallcovering, £179 per linear metre, Arte (arte-international.com)
Arte

By 1910, aged 40, he was making $100,000 annually. Daybreak (1922), a dreamy landscape bisected by two classical pillars, became the most popular print of the 20th century, outselling Warhol’s Campbells’ soup cans and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. At one point a copy hung in one in four American homes. Part of his appeal was escapism. Much of his work reimagined an Arcadia, a soothing, bucolic idyll populated by muses: playground of the god Pan. But Parrish was also a masterful colourist.

maxfield parrish blue
’Ultra Marine Blue’, £49.50 for 2.5 litres of Estate Emulsion, Farrow and Ball. (farrow-ball.com)
Farrow and Ball
maxfield parrish blue
’Flanders Blue’, £40 for 2.5 litres for 1829 Chalky Emulsion, Craig and Rose. (craigandrose.com)
Craig and Rose

The 1936 Time article quoted a member of the Chicago Institute of Art as saying that Parrish had no imitators because ‘it is just too darned hard work to imitate him’. Each painting began as a monochrome of blue, ‘right from the tube, not mixed with white or anything’, as Parrish would later explain, naming the shades: ‘Ultramarine or the Monastral blues or cobalt for distance and the skies.’

eco friendly fabrics
‘Zafaro’ wallcovering in ‘Peacock’, £256.50 per 10 metre roll, Black Edition (blackedition.com)
Black Edition

Once the base was complete, he described it as looking ‘for all the world like a blue dinner plate’. He would then painstakingly apply layer upon layer of transparent glazes and varnish until he achieved a work with the vivid luminosity of petrol splashed on asphalt.

maxfield parrish colour feature
‘Shindo’ fabric in ‘Horizon’, £192 per metre, Pierre Frey (pierefrey.com)
Pierre Frey

Parrish’s blues – all curiously warm, ranging from pale plumbago to the ink of an Aegean dusk– became his signature and acquired a cultural power all of their own. F Scott Fitzgerald, in a short story published two years before Daybreak was painted, referenced this special hue. ‘A deep creamy blue, the colour of a Maxfield Parrish moonlight – a blue that seemed to press close upon the [window] pane.’ He may never have won over the art critics, but his blues insinuated themselves into the popular imagination. They are the blues of happy dreams.

This feature appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2021

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