Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
Audio: Maxfield Parrish, Land of Make-Believe
Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)
1 More
Property from a Private Southwest Collection
Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)

Land of Make-Believe

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)
Land of Make-Believe
signed and dated 'Maxfield Parrish 1905' (lower right)
oil on canvas
40 ¼ x 32 ¼ in. (102.2 x 82 cm.)
Painted in 1905.
The artist.
Betsey P.C. Purves, wife of the above.
Betsey P.C. Purves Trust, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
[With]Vose Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts.
Alma Gilbert, acquired from the above, 1974.
Mitzi Sigall Briggs, Atherton, California, acquired from the above, 1974.
[With]Alma Gilbert Gallery, Inc., Burlingame, California, 1992.
Dr. Ronald Lawson, Memphis, Tennessee, acquired from the above.
[With]Alma Gilbert Gallery, Inc., Burlingame, California.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1996.
R.M. Watson, "Make Believe," Scribner's Magazine, August 1912, frontispiece illustration.
Art and Progress, vol. 3, no. 11, September 1912, p. 727.
The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospect, exhibition catalogue, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1966, n.p., no. 3, illustrated.
C. Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, pp. 56, 73, 212, no. 562, pl. 13, illustrated.
L.E. Ferry, The Make Believe World of Sue Lewin, Los Angeles, California, 1978, pp. 3, 10, 39, illustrated.
A. Gilbert, The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin, San Francisco, California, 1990, p. 18.
A. Gilbert, Maxfield Parrish: The Masterworks, Berkeley, California, 1992, pp. 80, 85-86, 93, 200, fig. 4.29, illustrated.
L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, San Francisco, California, 1995, p. 11.
A.M. Gilbert, Parrish and Photography, Plainfield, New Hampshire, 1998, pp. 1, 28, 79, pl. 49, illustrated.
S. Yount, Maxfield Parrish: 1870-1966, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1999, pp. 105, 152, illustrated.
L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, National Museum of American Illustration, Maxfield Parrish and the American Imagists, Edison, New Jersey, 2004, pp. 69, 162-63, illustrated.
A.G. Smith, Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe, Washington, D.C., 2005, pp. 22, 46, 48-49, no. 5, illustrated.
J.E. Menges, Worlds of Enchantment: The Art of Maxfield Parrish, Mineola, New York, 2010, p. x, pl. 34, illustrated.
Springfield, Massachusetts, The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospect, January 23-March 20, 1966, no. 3.
Cornish, New Hampshire, Cornish Colony Gallery & Museum, The Cornish Colony: 100th Year Celebration Exhibit, June-October 1998.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and elsewhere, Maxfield Parrish: 1870-1966, June 19-September 25, 1999, no. 15.
Palm Beach, Florida, The Society for the Four Arts, and elsewhere, Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe, January 21-February 20, 2005, no. 5.

Lot Essay

Land of Make-Believe is exemplary of Maxfield Parrish’s power to create a portal into an imaginary world, imbue his subjects with mystery and delight, and create compositions of tremendous visual impact and power. Parrish’s ability to blend Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, Old Master technique, a strict adherence to the laws of proportion and a sense of wonder is nowhere more evident than in Land of Make-Believe, one of Parrish’s earliest large-scale compositions and the first in which the artist’s muse, Sue Lewin, appears.

In 1898, following early success as an illustrator, Parrish designed and built “The Oaks,” a twenty-room house overlooking the Connecticut River in Cornish, New Hampshire, a vibrant artist’s community founded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He lived and worked there with his new bride Lydia, soon adding a fifteen-room studio where he would retreat to paint. Parrish preferred to work in his studio rather than paint en plein air, seeking to imbue his pictures with an ethereal sense of wonder, rather than a purely factual recording of place. Instead of modeling figures and compositions through rounds of sketching, he used photographs to set scenes. For a short period between 1905 and 1910, Parrish painted on large canvases affixed to board, like Land of Make-Believe. Thereafter, he painted on either masonite or stretched paper.

In 1905 the Parrishes hired Susan Lewin, the sixteen-year old niece of Maxfield’s brother Stephen’s housekeeper, to help Lydia with their first child, Dillwyn. Later that year she would model for the first time for Parrish for Land of Make-Believe. Parrish was so taken with her as a model that she would go on to be his principal model and muse for the rest of his painting career. As Judy Cutler notes, "When Susan bounded around The Oaks with babes in arms, Parrish watched her with fascination. He imagined her as his counterpart to Lord Leighton's companion model, Dene. When he first asked her to model for him and that first pose resulted in the painting Land of Make-Believe, Parrish was so happy with the outcome that he began to use Susan as his constant model." (L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, San Francisco, California, 1995, p. 11)

Lewin was tall and willowy with thick cascading hair and an oval face with large expressive eyes. Her romantic looks were a perfect fit for Parrish’s Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities. He took from the Pre-Raphaelites their precision, idealism and romantic taste. He also admired the delicate and laborious compositions of the Czech Art Nouveau painter and illustrator Alphonse Mucha. The fanciful subject matter of Land of Make-Believe demonstrates the influence of his teacher Howard Pyle, "who emphasized to Parrish the importance of historical accuracy and the need for models to wear authentic costumes if at all possible, for the audience wished to transport themselves into the image and fantasize as to its meaning." (L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish and the American Imagists, Edison, New Jersey, 2004, p. 74) Parrish became aware of the commercial appeal of historical scenes and adapted the practice of working from the costumed model.

Land of Make-Believe portrays two figures in a lush and magical garden. The main figure, based on a photograph of Lewin in costume, stands in a contrapposto pose among verdantly blooming climbing roses. The medieval garb of the figures adds to the fanciful escapism of the scene. Parrish's highly idealized fantasy worlds like Land of Make-Believe appealed to a large audience. His fantasy world is a safe, gentle place, far away from the pressures of real life. Land of Make-Believe was thus the perfect illustration for the frontispiece to Rosamund Marriott Watson’s Make-Believe published in Scribner’s Magazine in August 1912. Marriott Watson’s poem reminisces about the care-free childhood world of “let’s pretend” filled with enchanted woods, castles and witches.

Parrish was particularly interested in light effects on nature, as well as on the human figure. In Land of Make-Believe he explored using both back and front lit elements. The figures in the foreground are lit with soft and subtle light, while the cliffs in the background glow brilliantly in the setting sun. The spotlight on the background cliffs adds plunging depth to the composition. Anchoring the painting in the middle ground stand two monumental columns. This is a device that Parrish often used to balance his compositions and as a framing device for the fore- and backgrounds. Similar columns can be found in his most celebrated painting, Daybreak, a color lithographic print of which would become one of the most reproduced paintings in American history.

The magic and spirit of Land of Make-Believe is the result of an intricate approach to painting that was unique to Parrish. He possessed a calm and patient disposition that was perfectly suited to the arduous and time-consuming work his pictures demanded. This approach included the use of paper cut-outs, photography, props and models constructed in his workshop as well as a meticulous method of painting with glazes. Indeed, every detail from the brilliant patterning to the repetition of forms, which provide the work compositional unity, was manipulated so as to create an effective design. Parrish’s approach to his compositions derived from his early training as an architect as well as his interest in the principles of Jay Hambidge’s “Dynamic Symmetry”—a theory based on a rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek formulas to create harmonic proportions in architecture and art. Parrish wrote of his thoughtful compositions, “I lay each painting out on the basis of ‘dynamic symmetry’ or the mathematical proportion which the ancient Greeks and Egyptians found appealing to the eye. Thus by using ‘dynamic rectangles’ and ‘whirling squares’...I design the dimensions of my pictures and block them off, placing the horizon in just the right place...” (as quoted in Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, p. 2) Once the structure of the composition was laid out, Parrish would take photographs of his costumed models. He eschewed professional models, often asking family and friends to pose for his works as he believed that these ingenues captured the spirit of innocence that he wanted his paintings to exude.

Just as he employed photographs from which to work on the figures in his compositions, Parrish often used clever methods of reproducing grand components in his studio so that he could study them and experiment with various light sources. He created the effect of natural light and shadows through artificial methods, shining lamps on models and 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 usually completed the landscape first and then used a stencil of the silhouette to impose the figure on top.

Central to the success and timeless appeal of Land of Make-Believe is Parrish’s meticulous and time-consuming process of painting with glazes. Influenced by the Old Master painters, this was a slow, meticulous process that resulted in magnificent luminosity 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. Parrish subsequently layered pure pigment and varnish over and over to achieve a heightened vibrancy of colors resulting in a smooth, rich luminosity. Parrish’s glazing technique accounts for the soft, variegated light that bathes the majestic background and imbues the work with a sense of wonder. Here he magically captures both the gentle and dramatic effects of light on the figures and landscape as the hazy atmosphere cloaks the mountains in the background, while those in the front are in sharp focus. The contrast between the partially shadowed figures, rendered with soft, curvilinear forms, and the more rectilinear architectural elements and craggy terrain adds complexity to the composition as well as visual appeal.

Parrish can be credited with raising illustration to museum quality art. Among his admirers was his successor as America’s favorite painter, Norman Rockwell, who in a 1967 memorial film remembered: “Maxfield Parrish was certainly, maybe, the most popular illustrator artist and there wasn’t a home in America, hardly, that didn’t have a Maxfield Parrish print. I’m an illustrator and Maxfield Parrish was a painter-illustrator. He was in the Golden Age of Illustration. When I was in art school I admired him and he was one of my gods….I had and still have a great respect for him, as an artist and an illustrator.” (as quoted in a video interview, Parrish Blue: American Art History, 1967)

More from American Art

View All
View All