Once upon a time publishers sought to print children’s books which were themselves little pieces of art from cover to cover. The language had been honed to perfection over many generations of telling so that children would be enthralled and amazed at stories of giants and dragons and gnomes. The pictures were not simple drawings but paintings designed to enhance the written word, that together they might create a mood and landscape suitable for dreaming. Without the constant distractions of movies and television young minds were free to fantasize, to wander on their own; they were given just enough data to spur their own creative faculties. The inquisitive child becomes autogenitor of the creative adult, and thus humanity enhances itself with each generation.
I don’t think modern publishers would care for Maxfield Parrish. They wouldn’t want to fund him, for one thing. His paintings are very involved, and take a long time to produce. He used a peculiar glazing technique to create his amazing colors and textures which provide a near three dimensionality in person but are impossible to duplicate in a book. Max, baby, you are trying too hard. Pull back a little. That will be good enough. It’s just for kids and what do they know? We need to make a little money on this, capice?
Almost every single fantasy illustrator you can name borrows from the technique and style of Maxfield Parrish. When you have colors named after you, you know you’ve made an impact. In the category of art reproduced as art for people to own (as opposed to Snoopy appearing on a million Met-Life billboards) Parrish is the single most reproduced artist in human history. In the mid twentieth century it was estimated that one in five Americans owned and displayed a Parrish print in their home.
More copies of Daybreak have been sold than copies of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Give yourself a moment to really think about that. Despite this stunning popularity there is no real artifice in Parrish’s work. To paraphrase a famous article on Parrish, here “kitsch meets the sublime.”
Even with the emergence and subsequent dominance of modern and abstract movements, Parrish remained popular until his death in the sixties. He was openly admired by almost everyone in the art world, and remains among the most popular artists selling today. I think he is held in such regard because of his purity. He did not pretend to a sense of irony. He considered what he did important, and he approached his task appropriately. He took himself seriously, and he presumed a level of responsibility unheard of today. When the paint on a mural he had painted for a patron began to deteriorate, he refused to charge her for a second, independent mural.
Sometimes I watch a movie or read a book and begin to feel uncomfortable before it is barely begun. The director or the writer is in a rush to assure me that he is somehow personally above what he is offering me. “I’m much hipper than this stuff I’m showing you,” he seems to say. And I want to grab him by the neck and snarl, “Well yes, almost everyone is, you silly little gob. You and your kind are all patination and no bronze. Give me something you care about or stop wasting my time.”
Maxfield Parrish cared deeply about what he did. Once upon a time he was the best selling artist in the world. Who knows? Maybe he still is. But whether he is or not doesn’t matter, because his approach to art proves something important.
It pays to give a damn.