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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Maxfield Parrish at the Fenimore Art Museum

Maxfield Parrish - Masquerade oil on board 1922
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
If you think an exhibition of work by an early-20th-century illustrator with broad commercial appeal is not to be taken seriously, think again. Maxfield Parrish: Art of Light and Illusion, on view at Cooperstown's Fenimore Art Museum through Sept. 7, is a knockout.

Girl on a Swing oil on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Parrish was the most popular and highest paid commercial artist of his time and, judging from the art, artifacts, and facts on display here, he earned it. While skill alone never makes great art, it can't hurt - and Parrish had enough skill for ten great artists. Initially educated through his artist father's tutelage and a seminal two-year European sojourn as a teen, Parrish first took an architecture degree, then went to study under Howard Pyle, himself a memorable illustrator of the day, before embarking on a career that revolutionized the field of commercial art reproduction.

The Storm oil on canvas 1907
The Addison Gallery
Parrish got his start illustrating children's books, quickly establishing a knack for fantasy and fun, while executing flawless representational techniques. Some of the early work in this exhibition demonstrates a prodigious ability for black-and-white rendering, whether in line or texture, as well as some of the most impressive hand lettering you will see this side of a medieval manuscript.

But Parrish would gain his greatest success as a colorist, perfecting a layering technique in painting that lent itself to stunningly vivid lithographic reproduction; this paved the way to his becoming the most popular artist in America - his 1925 Daybreak was said to be present in one-quarter of all homes - and creating a style that remains iconic today.

A Good Mixer oil on artist board 1924
This painting was owned - and imitated - by Norman Rockwell
Some would dismiss that style as inconsequential fluff from a sillier time - and there's truth in that thought - but Parrish's best paintings are so perfectly constructed, so masterfully rendered, and so unabashedly seductive as to be, frankly, irresistible. He was also extremely influential, as the show points out on a wall panel citing George Lucas, Andy Warhol and others as acolytes and collectors of Parrish's work.

Guest Curator Megan Holloway Fort intelligently organized the show in a cycle, beginning with a fine landscape painting by Parrish's father, and concluding with several landscapes that represent Maxfield's later-in-life commitment to fine art rather than illustration. Along the way, she includes a good variety of examples of Parrish's working photographs, drawings, props, and cutouts, providing an intriguing lesson about a craftsman so meticulous that he regularly machined metal and wooden forms to use as source material for photographs he shot and developed himself as guides to his paintings.

Ecstasy Mazda Lamps calendar lithograph 1930
Pithy quotes abound in the exhibition notes: A New York Times critic wrote that everything Parrish did was "an exercise in conspicuous virtuosity"; Holloway describes the "theatricality, fantasy, sentimentality, and good humor" of Parrish's oeuvre; and Parrish describes himself as "a machinist who paints." He also said, perhaps too tellingly, as he quit the illustration trade in 1936: "It's an awful thing to be a rubber stamp."

So, after achieving the financial success he sought, Parrish dedicated himself to painting landscapes; and the ones presented here are just marvelous. I found myself craning in to scrutinize every detail - the closer I got, the more there was to see, masterfully materialized in color, texture, and line. In the end, it was very difficult to leave this immensely satisfying show.

Potpourri oil on stretched paper 1905

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