Widely regarded as one of America's most popular illustrators, Maxfield Parrish received his first magazine commission in 1895 for Harper's Bazaar's Easter cover. This was the start of a blazing career working for publications such as Life, Ladies' Home Journal, Harper's Weekly and Scribner's. "From every newsstand his work would be instantly recognized, sometimes gracing different publications alongside each other." (A. Gilbert, Maxfield Parrish: The Masterworks, Berkeley, California, 1992, p. 63) In 1904 Parrish signed an exclusive contract with Collier's stating that his future work would be published solely in the publication until 1910. Parrish received $1,250 a month and retained all the original paintings. Collier's pages were larger than most periodicals of the time giving Parrish more creative freedom. Additionally, the ability to work within a consistent style and format for six years allowed the artist greater opportunity for exploration and experimentation. Painted in 1908, near the end of this exclusive agreement, Proserpina and the Sea Nymphs demonstrates Parrish's artistic growth during this period. "It was generally felt that his magazine work had exposed a side of his talent which had not been evident in his earlier, more commercial graphic periodical covers and poster designs. His work had become more delicate andelegant." (L.S. Cutler and J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, Rohnert Park, California, 1995, p. 7)
Originally painted as one of a series of works inspired by classical mythology for Collier's, Proserpina and the Sea Nymphs was illustrated in the April 23, 1910 issue. The painting was also one of ten Parrish paintings to be used as an illustration for Duffield and Company's 1910 reprint of Nathanial Hawthorne's A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. This collection of adaptations of Greek and Roman mythology included "The Pomegranate Seeds," a retelling of the story of Proserpina, for which the present work was used as an illustration.
Proserpina and the Sea Nymphs depicts a scene at the beginning of "The Pomegranate Seeds" when the young Proserpina, daughter of the gods Ceres and Jupiter, playfully joins her friends, the green-haired sea nymphs. As the story continues, Proserpina wanders off to collect flowers and is kidnapped by Pluto, god of the underworld. Pluto only agrees to allow his young bride to leave the underworld for several months a year, which are marked by the coming of spring and summer. Fall and winter came when Proserpina returned to Pluto's kingdom and thus ancient Romans used the myth of Proserpina to explain the seasons.
Parrish's virtuosity and characteristic attention to detail and composition are manifested in Proserpina and the Sea Nymphs. He adeptly captures the roiling shallows and ephemeral ocean spray to convey the coolness of the sea while suffusing the work with warm light. By setting the sun behind the clouds, Parrish creates a dramatic backdrop for the precisely outlined figures. As with his best works, he instills the painting with a sense of historical authenticity, depicting Proserpina in, "a type of Grecian peplos with girdle favored by the artistlike those popularized by Parrish's contemporary, the dancer Isadora Duncan." (S. Yount, Maxfield Parrish 1870-1960, New York, 1999, p. 82) This was a common costume in Parrish's works appearing in Sleeping Beauty (1912, Hearst's magazine cover), Morning (1922, Life magazine Easter cover) among other works. The costume combines with the stage-like setting of the work to simultaneously conjure the archaic and contemporary performance.
Prosperina and the Sea Nymphs is representative of Professor Hubert von Herkomer's comments on the technical virtuosity underlying Parrish's success during the early 1900s, "Mr. Parrish has absorbed, yet purified, every modern oddity, and added to it his own strong original identity. He has combined the photographic vision with the pre-Raphaelite feeling. He is poetic without ever being maudlin, and has the saving clause of humor. He can give good suggestiveness without loss of unflinching detail. He has a strong sense of romance. He has a great sense of characterization without a touch of ugliness. He can be modern, medieval, or classic. He has been able to infuse into the most uncompromising realism the decorative element-an extraordinary feat in itself. He is throughout an excellent draughtsman, and his finish is phenomenal...He will do much to reconcile the extreme and sober elements of our times." (as quoted in L.L. Watkins, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospect, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1966, n.p.) The continuing appeal of Proserpina and the Sea Nymphs is a testament to Parrish's technical mastery and his ability to create scenes that are both classical and timeless.
While Parrish's magazine work won him popular acclaim and wide-spread recognition, according to Alma Gilbert, "His greatest book illustrations, for Poems of Childhood (1904), Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), Arabian Nights (1909), Tanglewood Tales (1910), and The Knave of Hearts (1925), established his reputation as one of the best illustrators of the early twentieth century, along with N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle." (A. Gilbert, Maxfield Parrish: The Masterworks, Berkeley, California, 1992, p. 18) Proserpina and the Sea Nymphs, which is simultaneously enchanting and sophisticated, is representative of these celebrated works.
Proserpina and the Sea Nymphs displays Maxfield Parrish's ability to blend Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, Old Master technique and a commercial sensitivity into a beautiful and appealing painting. The work is a window to an Arcadian fantasy that exudes innocence and mystical beauty and is exemplary of Parrish's work from the early twentieth century.