Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966) was the most popular American illustrator in the early 20th Century. Time magazine reported in 1936 that “as far as the sale of expensive color reproductions is concerned, the three most popular artists in the world are van Gogh, Cezanne, and Maxfield Parrish.” His ethereal paintings of girls on rocks were an influence on my early work. My earliest memory of Parrish comes from when I was in a gifted and talented art program in high school. The teacher asked us to find a work of art that reflected the idea of rebirth. I choose Parrish’s illustration for the cover of Collier’s Easter issue of 1905. In retrospect, I find it a bit amusing. What publisher today would feature a nude lad on the cover of an Easter issue of a magazine? I suspect a bunny with Easter eggs would be a more likely choice. But I think Parrish’s image is a better image to represent Easter than bunnies and eggs. Although the figure doesn’t look like Christ, Christ was most likely not wearing any clothes when he was crucified and he is depicted as nearly nude in many paintings of the Resurrection. This would have been understood in 1905, homosexuality would not have been even considered, this was before the media was saturated with images of Disneyland.
My favorite painting by Parrish is probably Evening, which was used for the cover of the October 1921 issue of Life. I find the painting to be more mystical and sublime than the paintings of the Hudson River School, a school of painting which sought to reflect God’s presence in nature. I think Evening is more effective because of the figure gives the viewer a person to empathize with, one can imagine being in the serene place. The girl appears to be the spirit of the water, she could be an image of the anima archetype. Carl Jung proposed that archetypes are primordial images which are in the reservoirs of the collective unconscious, these images are not gained by experience, rather they are inherited from one’s ancestral past. The archetypes reflect aspects of one’s personality, the anima archetype is the feminine side of the male psyche. It should be understood that when artists painted female figures, very often they were in a sense painting their soul.
Of Parrish’s paintings, his painting Daybreak was by far the most popular, it has been estimated that 1 in 3 American homes had a reproduction of Daybreak during the 1920’s. What accounted to its popularity? The image is not just an “everyday” scene, one would not drive past a barn on a country road to find this scene. It functions like great art of the past, it creates an other dimension of reality as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos. Every culture has its idea of the archetypal paradise, like the garden of Eden, in which humanity existed in peace and harmony, a paradise which once existed and will exist again. This archetype gave society a standard of what the world ought to be like, an image in opposition to the “dog eat dog” world. To lose faith in this archetype can only have tragic consequences. Jean Baudrillard recognized,”the soul of Art– Art as adventure, Art with its power of illusion, its capacity for negating reality, for setting up a ‘other scene’ in opposition to reality, where things obey a higher set of rules– in this sense, Art is gone’.
The tremendous shift in our culture is revealed by comparing Parrish’s Evening and Daybreak to a typical painting by Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade is famous for his paintings of cozy cottages with windows and lampposts aglow. Kinkades paintings may not seem very different from Parrish’s in their charm, but they reflect very different philosophical subtexts. Instead of depicting an other dimension of reality as Parrish and the old masters, Kinkade acts as if the world can be transformed into Eden by the power of one’s bank account. As long as we pay the electric bill to keep the lampposts glowing, everything will be alright. The Cranach blog featured an article by Daniel Siedell on the danger of Kinkade’s work,”the Edenic world Kinkade projects is pretty much the fallen world without the dirtiness of the city and the inconvenience of other people, a weekend getaway in the country. All we need to do to return to Eden, is to get our lives in order.”
Kinkade’s work is an example of work is an example of what I call persona culture. The word persona originally referred to a mask worn by an actor in a play, in Jungian psychology, the persona is the role one plays, the way one presents oneself to be accepted by society. In our advanced industrialized society, the expectations are so high for the persona, the actual soul of a man, the anima, remains underdeveloped. Since the yoke of the persona cuts one-off from the significance of the archetypes, there is a loss of faith in truth, everything in the culture is just a sales pitch. The persona culture is a banal conformist culture in which images are taken for their exchange value, not for their symbolic content. Cultural objects are not valued for meaning or for actual aesthetic enjoyment but rather, for how they make one appear to the crowd.
Baudrillard claimed that,”Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of hyperreal and of simulation.” America is represented by local media, as in the paintings of Kinkade, as a utopia of cottages, barns, old mills, and lampposts. I’m an artist who lives outside of Bucks County Pennsylvania, the area is known for landscapes painting, many artists have made a career of painting a Disneyland of barns. I painted some landscapes for the local scene but keep the landscape pure without any buildings. I did a painting of a young girl walking into a field, a year later I learned that the girl who had modeled for the painting had developed an anxiety disorder because she was afraid to go to school, since girls in her class had bullied her. She is only 10. We live in a good area, actually one of the best in the US but even the local schools are still violent. Our society is falling apart due to the impoverishment of symbols, but artists like Kinkade continue to perpetuate a facade utopia. Every thing will be alright as long as we pay the electric bill to keep the lampposts glowing.
The only solution I see for the arts, is a return to archetypal images, to represent an other dimension of reality. Baudrillard claimed that Disneyland is a no exit world of self referring hyperreality. But I am certain there is hope, the very fact that Parrish was able to create some art with soul at the time of mass-production and that some souls like myself are inspired by him many years later, is proof. Parrish’s daughter Jean modeled nude for Stars when she was about 15, the fact that many people today would criminalize this, reflects their alienation. Since the mass media, the persona culture has saturated the conscience with sexual images we have lost contact with aspects of the anima, such as storge. Storge is unconditional love one usually has for family members, a developed anima in a male artist enables him to paint with the sensitivity of a mother.
I think there is a sweetness in the photograph of Jean posing for Stars which is lost in the painting, this may be due to the technical problem of making the figure stand out from the sky. I find images like this to be the most precious in the universe. I recall showing my great-aunt Betty a painting I was working on with a figure similar to Jean in Stars, my aunt Betty died years ago, if she were alive today, I think she would be 108. When I show her the painting I recall how she was delighted by it, she thought it was warm and beautiful. I know a lot of artists who go to paint local landmarks, like the Phillips Mill but they only do it because everyone else is doing it, they are so out of touch with their humanity because of the persona culture, they never could create a painting like Stars. They are like the sad tourists in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise who follow the “MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA” signs.
In the mid 1930’s Parrish stopped painting “girls on rocks”, as he called them, to focus on landscapes. Although his landscapes never went as far into Disneyland as Kinkade’s paintings, there was something he lost when he stopped painting the figures. His paintings with buildings are for the one-dimensional man, paintings like Daybreak refute this reality and give us an other dimension, an ideal for us to live up to.
Graydon Parrish is a descendant of Maxfield’s, in my opinion, he is one of the greatest artists living, his work can be found here.