While celebrated for his illustrative works, Maxfield Parrish's true passion was capturing his surrounding landscape in bold tones and striking compositions. Although he experimented with landscapes throughout his career and incorporated elements into many of his commercial works, it was not until 1930, after he had achieved commercial success and financial security, that Parrish turned exclusively to the subject. While he relished his new found artistic freedom, he continued to use his signature technique and palette that had won him much praise. This combination gave new life to Parrish's work, resulting in magical dreamscapes such as White Birches: Winter, in which his masterful handling of paint and keen understanding of color are at their zenith.
Parrish began experimenting with landscape painting in the 1890s, painting and sketching around Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and introducing landscape elements into his magazine and book illustrations. The turn of the century brought two consecutive commissions from Century Magazine which had a profound effect on his landscape painting. During the winters of 1901 to 1902 and 1902 to 1903, Parrish traveled to and around Arizona to produce a series of paintings for Ray Stannard Baker's article "The Great Southwest." Parrish was immediately fascinated by the area's dramatic lighting and brilliant range of color, both of which created impressive effects against the unusual terrain. As Coy Ludwig points out, "the dramatic effects of the southwestern sunrises and sunsets, with their reflections of brilliant orange hues and shadows of purple and blue, and the craggy terrain of the canyons became forever a part of Parrish's artistic vocabulary." (C. Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 171) The artist's experience in the Southwest was followed by another influential excursion, this time to Italy where he spent three months gathering material to illustrate Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens. The subtle light and coloring Parrish found in Italy served as a balance to the dramatic topography and atmosphere of the Southwest.
In 1898, before setting out on either of these journeys, Parrish had built a house and studio in the thriving artist's colony of Cornish, New Hampshire. Established in 1885 by the prominent American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Cornish colony grew into a lively and productive world of artists, authors, playwrights and architects. Parrish lived and worked in this southwestern region of New Hampshire for the remainder of his life, and, naturally, his immediate surroundings became the basis for his landscapes. In White Birches: Winter, he dramatizes the local environs, incorporating the vivid hues and subdued light of his previous travels.
The shimmering, enamel-like surface, arresting composition and boundless detail of White Birches: Winter are the result of an intricate approach to painting that was unique to Parrish. Although he loved the crisp New Hampshire atmosphere and rolling farmscapes, Parrish preferred to work in his studio rather than paint en plein air. He sought to imbue his pictures with an ethereal sense of wonder, rather than paint purely factual recordings of place, and his protracted glazing technique made painting from nature virtually impossible as light would shift before he could capture it. Possessing a calm and patient disposition that was perfectly suited to the arduous and time-consuming work his pictures demanded, Parrish often used clever methods of reproducing grand components in his studio. For mountainous landscapes, such as the one in the background of White Birches: Winter, he often used broken quartz rocks placed on a mirror. He also created the effect of natural light and shadows through artificial methods, shining lamps onto props. Once Parrish determined exactly how he wanted to lay out his painting, he would outline the composition using either a photo projection or cut-outs applied to the surface. He typically completed the landscape first and then used a stencil of the silhouette to impose any architectural structures. This exacting method allowed Parrish to experiment with a variety of elements, establish a definitive layout for his composition and remove the chance of error and natural variance. This control allowed him to create crystalline paintings and focus on color and nuance rather than composition when he began to paint.
Central to White Birches: Winter's beauty is Parrish's meticulous and time-consuming process of painting with glazes and his restrained use of bold pigments. Influenced by the Old Master painters, this was a meticulous process that resulted in magnificent luminosity and intensity of color. Parrish began with a white base which served to light the canvas from the first layer up through the last. Then, using a stipple brush, he applied paint directly from the tube as he felt strongly about the purity of color and the resulting effect it made on the picture as a whole. The artist expressed his aims concerning color, "Probably that which has a greater hold on me than any other quality is color. I feel it is a language but little understood; much less so than it used to be. To be a great colorist that is my modest ambition. I hope someday to express the child's attitude towards nature and things; for that is the purest and most unconscious." (Maxfield Parrish Papers, Hanover, New Hampshire) Parrish subsequently layered pure pigment and varnish repeatedly to achieve a heightened vibrancy of colors resulting in a smooth, richly luminous surface. White Birches: Winter's enamel-like saturation is a trademark of Parrish's work as is the intense blue of the sky. In the painting Parrish's signature shade creates a beautiful contrast with the softly radiant orange that bathes the middle ground.
Parrish was particularly interested in the effect light has upon nature and his exploration of this phenomena is central to the success of the present work. He places the light source to the rear left of the composition casting the foreground in the deep, purple shadow of early dawn and creating a pattern of sun and shade on the elegant branches of the Birch tree. This dramatic use of light adds complexity to the picture as does Parrish's use of overlapping forms to create a sense of depth. Pattern is woven into the composition in the bare patches of tree bark and sparkling, jewel-like leaves of the trees interspersed in the winter wonderland as well as the intricate constellation of the birch tree's branches across the infinite sky.
In White Birches: Winter Parrish employs his technical mastery to imbue a common scene with a sense of wonder, and to transform it into a romanticized panorama of mystical beauty.