The landscape of Vermont and New Hampshire inspired Maxfield Parrish in 1922 to create the lush, romantic painting Daybreak.
Daybreak became the most popular art print of the 20th century. One in four U.S. households owned a print of the neoclassical landscape with two beautiful nymphs in the foreground.
Parrish’s spectacularly imaginative art made him famous and allowed him to live comfortably with his family in the Cornish Art Colony. There he entertained President Woodrow Wilson, actress Ethel Barrymore and journalist Walter Lippman. Norman Rockwell idolized him from across the Connecticut River in Vermont. Calendars he illustrated as advertisements sold by the millions. And a shade of cobalt blue was even named after him.
Maxfield Parrish didn’t understand his own popularity — or at least claimed not to.
“I am hopelessly commonplace, I don’t know what people see in me!” he once said.
His methodical, almost mechanical, way of painting produced brilliant effects of color and light. He adapted the new process printing technique to methods used by the old masters. He started with a monochrome underpainting and then layered on transparent glazes. And between each layer, he applied varnish.
“This method is very simple, very ancient, very laborious, and by no means original with me,” he said. He called himself ‘a mechanic who paints.’
Maxfield Parrish was born July 25, 1870, in Philadelphia, to artist Stephen Parrish and Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish. His parents named him Frederick, but he later adopted his maternal grandmother’s maiden name.
From childhood he wanted to be an artist, and his parents encouraged him. When he turned 10, his father took him on a tour of European art museums. They sketched together in Europe and in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Philadelphia.
After graduating from the Pennsylvania College of Arts, he and his father shared a studio in the Annisquam village of Gloucester, Mass.
He studied art for another year at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, then embarked on a wildly successful career.
During the Golden Age of American illustration, artists produced a prodigious amount of fresh, exciting pictures for books and magazines. There was little difference between commercial and fine art during the period, roughly lasting from 1880-1920. It was triggered by innovations in mass color printing and led by such Brandywine artists as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.
Successful illustrators achieved celebrity in their day, their names household words.
Maxfield Parrish belonged to that group. He illustrated greeting cards, advertisements and children’s books, including Arabian Nights and Poems of Childhood. His work arrived in the mailboxes of millions of homes, appearing on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Colliers and Scribners Magazine. His paintings for full-color calendars for Edison-Mazda Lamps sold in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes the millions. People often framed them at the end of the year.
By 1910, he was so successful he was earning more than $100,000 a year in a time when a home could be bought for $2,000.
Maxfield Parrish was only 28 in 1898 when he and his new wife, Lydia Austin, could afford to build a house in Plainfield, N.H.
Plainfield belonged to the Cornish Art Colony, and his father .had already moved there. He urged the young couple to join him. Maxfield Parrish built a house across the river from his father and called it The Oaks. He lived there until his death on March 30, 1966.
The Cornish Art Colony flourished from 1895 to about 1925. Led by August Saint-Gaudens, it included artists, sculptors, writers, politicians and entertainers. They lived in the towns of Plainfield and Cornish in New Hampshire, and across the Connecticut River in Windsor, Vt. Residents included President Woodrow Wilson, artist Frederic Remington, dancer Isadora Duncan, actress Marie Dressler, sculptor Daniel Chester French and literary editor Maxwell Perkins.
In 1922 Maxfield Parrish finished what he called ‘the great painting’: Daybreak. He used three models: Kitty Owen, William Jennings Bryan’s granddaughter; his daughter Jean; and Susan Lewin, his young nanny.
The painting achieved staggering success. Still in print, Daybreak outsold Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
Parrish eventually moved out of The Oaks and into the studio with Susan Lewin. His wife began to take long trips with their four children. The arrangement scandalized Plainfield, but Parrish and Lewin claimed to have only a Platonic friendship.
Meanwhile the public demanded more images of lissome nymphs and androgynous youths in sumptuous landscapes and fantastical scenes. And so Maxfield Parrish obligingly churned them out.
No More Girls on Rocks
In 1931, Maxfield Parrish told The Associated Press, “I’m done with girls on rocks.” He abandoned illustration for landscape painting, which was more satisfying, but less lucrative.
He hadn’t finished with Susan Lewin, though. Their arrangement continued for 55 years until Lydia Parrish died in 1960. Maxfield Parrish was 90, Susan Lewin was 71, and they could finally marry. He declined, and she left him to marry someone else.
Parrish continued to paint landscapes and murals until his death. His clients included the Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Astors, Du Ponts and Hearsts. In 2006, actor Mel Gibson’s wife Robyn bought Daybreak at Christie’s for $7.6 million.
The ‘mechanic who paints’ had an abiding love for machinery. He built a shop beneath his studio and filled it with machines. With them, he created model scenes, props and lighting effects for his paintings. One of his sons, Stephen, became an airline mechanic. Another son, Maxfield Parrish, Jr., helped create the self-developing camera at Edwin Land’s Polaroid Corporation. Daughter Jean became an artist.
Daybreak continues to influence popular culture. Variations were used on a Moody Blues’ album cover, in a Michael Jackson music video, a Bloom County cartoon collection and the movie poster for The Princess Bride.
A Maxfield Parrish enthusiast bought The Oaks. He then rebuilt it after it burned. It was put up for sale in its entirety for $1.15 million in 2017.
You can visit the center of the Cornish Art Colony, St. Gaudens National Historic Site, a National Park Service site.
This story about Maxfield Parrish was updated in 2022.