Maxfield Parrish: Knee-Deep in Parrish Blues

Article by Amanda Barnell

Maxfield Parrish was one of the most innovative painters of the early 20th century. His work cannot be boxed into any definitive category or school. He was a true art pioneer. The color “cobalt blue” was renamed “Parrish blue” to do homage to his penchant and proficiency in the use of the dazzling color.

TechniquesParrish devised numerous unique methods of creation in his work, many of which have never been successfully duplicated by his contemporaries. One of his famous techniques involved the use of a large piece of cloth with a black and white geometric pattern. This piece of cloth was draped over a human model (often himself) causing the pattern of geometric shapes to be distorted. The model was then photographed. The artist would create a transparency of the picture, project it onto one of his pieces and, using black graphite on a white canvas, trace and fill in all the black sections of the projected photograph. The result was a remarkably realistic image of a person wearing a geometrically-patterned cloth.

Parrish was prolific in his use of color, particularly cobalt or Parrish blue. He would achieve this unique hue by glazing. The technique involved alternating between layers of oil color and varnish over a base image.

In the Throes of “Ecstasy”A stunning example of Parrish’s use of vibrant color is demonstrated in his work titled “Ecstasy”. It depicts a young woman on a mountain top with a blue expanse of water below her. The subject’s pose suggests the artist’s passionate nature. Her back is arched, her arms are extended behind her neck, and her chin is tilted upward toward the sky. Her dress and hair appear to be fluttering in a breeze. The woman seems to be leaning off the cliff, ready to set herself afloat in the air. It is believed that this piece was inspired by Parrish’s daughter Jean who, at the time, was growing into a woman and breaking free of family constraints. The use of Parrish blue in this painting is striking. It is in stark contrast with the white clouds, adding a dream-like and magnificent quality to the piece.

Parrish Blue in “Dreaming”In 1928, Parrish painted “Dreaming” (or “October”) which depicted a nude woman seated at the base of a tree on the lower left of the painting. However, upon its completion, Parrish had a change of heart and decided to modify it, but never completed the project. Nevertheless, on the right side of the piece, Parrish did a remarkable thing that truly showcased his talent with color. He painted the cyan printing plate directly on the canvas. He skillfully assessed the blue components and painted them directly onto the white background in a thin, transparent glaze. As a result, when light hit the painting, it would pierce the transparent glazes, reflect off the white background and blended the colors in a way that could not be achieved with mixed pigments. The end product was an exquisite creation of a Parrish blue tree mirroring the tree to the left. It gives the piece a haunting quality, an illusive belief that the tree on the right is an ephemeral phantom.

Maxfield Parrish was an influential and admired artist. He was not only a remarkable artist able to create spectacular landscapes with brilliant colors and original techniques, but he was also an illustrator. Moreover, his paintings had the underpinnings of a narrative just begging to be told.

About the Author

Amanda Barnell is an inspiring artist who provides original content for many newspapers and websites. This article was originally published in Maxfield Parrish Prints.

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