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Ottaquechee River

Parrish, M.
Ottaquechee River
signed and dated 'Maxfield Parrish/1947' (lower right)—signed and dated again and inscribed with title (on the reverse)
oil on masonite
23 x 18 5/8 in. (58.4 x 47.3 cm.)
Painted in 1947.
The artist.
Estate of the above.
Alma Gilbert-Smith, Plainfield, New Hampshire, acquired from the above.
Private collection, California, acquired from the above, 1974.
By descent to the present owner.
C. Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 219, no. 801.
A. Gilbert, Maxfield Parrish: The Masterworks, Berkeley, California, 1992, pp. 168, 171, 176, fig. 8.9, illustrated.
A. Gilbert, Maxfield Parrish: The Landscapes, Berkeley, California, 1998, p. 96, no. 22, illustrated.
A. Gilbert, J.B. Tankard, A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony, Berkeley, California, 2000, cover illustration.
Boston, Massachusetts, Vose Galleries, 1973.
San Mateo, California, La Galeria, 1973-74.
Plainfield, New Hampshire, Maxfield Parrish Museum, 1978-80.
San Francisco, California, Maxwell Galleries Ltd., 1984.

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Lot Essay

Maxfield Parrish’s landscapes from the latter half of his career wonderfully represent the uniquely magical atmosphere that the painter was able to accomplish through his intricate technique. By this time, Parrish had established his career with figural illustrations and art prints, and with his commercial success came the artistic freedom to pursue a fresh focus. As he explained in 1931, “I'm quitting my rut now while I'm still able. There are always pretty girls on every city street, but a man can't step out of the subway and watch the clouds playing with the top of Mt. Ascutney. It's the unattainable that appeals. Next best thing to seeing the ocean or the hills or the woods is enjoying a painting of them.” (as quoted in L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, San Francisco, California, 1995, p. 12) The present work, Ottaquechee River of 1947, exemplifies this unending sense of wonder and joy in nature that inspired Parrish’s landscape career. Brilliantly combining ‘Parrish blue’ tones with mesmerizing reflections and acute attention to detail, the present work was notably included on Parrish scholar Alma Gilbert-Smith’s list of thirteen masterwork landscapes and described by her as “one of the exquisite works done by the artist during his mature years.” (unpublished letter, 15 April 2005)

In 1898, Parrish built a house and studio called The Oaks in Plainfield, New Hampshire, near the thriving artist colony in Cornish. Parrish lived there for the remainder of his life, and naturally his immediate surroundings became the basis for his celebrated landscapes. The Ottauquechee River is a tributary of the Connecticut River which runs not far from Parrish’s home, and the artist was drawn to its banks to delight in the scenic beauty. In the present painting, Parrish plays with the reflections of the rocks and foliage, creating a mirroring effect in the calm water that adds to the sense of mystery within the scene. The overall blue tonality casts an evening glow over the full composition, as a lone yellow light shines through the windows of the home at right—grounding the otherwise ethereal landscape back in the everyday. Indeed, Parrish’s vision of the landscape verges on the surreal, perhaps even drawing parallels to the famed L’Empire des lumières series by Rene Magritte.

Parrish preferred to paint his landscapes in his studio, rather than while out in nature, to design his scene to maximize the visual impact. While interested in accurately capturing details, he did not doggedly stick to an exact recording of the environment; rather, Parrish believed in combining realistic elements with artistic license to ideally convey the overall atmosphere of the moment. As the artist explained, “Realism should never be the end in view. My theory is that you should use all the objects in nature, trees, hills, skies, rivers and all, just as stage properties on which to hang your idea, the end in view, the elusive qualities of the day…'Realism' of impression, the mood of the moment, yes, but not the realism of things.” (Maxfield Parrish, p. 185)

As such, Parrish would literally arrange the various elements of his landscapes as if on a stage to cleverly envision his composition prior to painting. Gilbert-Smith explains, “His photographs allowed him to take the details back to the studio with him. He kept a cabinet in the studio with small compartments labeled 'Rocks,' 'Trees,' 'Streams,' etc., where he kept glass negatives of his images.” (Maxfield Parrish: The Landscapes, Berkeley, California, 1998, p. 19) He would also create to-scale models of buildings, or for rocky shores like in Ottaquechee River, he used broken quartz rocks placed on a mirror as a prop. Then, once he 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. This exacting method allowed Parrish to experiment with a variety of elements, establish a definitive layout for his composition, and then be able to focus solely on color when he began to paint.

Parrish’s painting process would often take the artist two to three months, as he applied layer after layer of glazes to instill the scene with its sense of an inner glow. Inspired by the Old Master painters, he began with a white ground and subsequently layered pure pigment and varnish repeatedly to achieve a specific hue with brilliant incandescence. Parrish reflected, "Probably that which has a greater hold on me than any other quality is color.” (Maxfield Parrish Papers, Hanover, New Hampshire) In fact, his colleagues started to describe his work as painted in “Parrish blue”—presaging the associations of later artists like Yves Klein with their signature colors.

Parrish's glazing technique imbues Ottaquechee River not only with rich bold colors, but also with soft light and a sense of intricacy more wondrous than even the reality of nature. The artist would say, “‘Only God can make a tree.’ True enough but I'd like to see him paint one.” (Maxfield Parrish, p. 177) Indeed, in the present work, each branch of leaves and section of grassy riverbank is masterfully composed of supremely delicate spots of layered pigment, that together distill the essence of dappled evening light upon foliage. As demonstrated here, Parrish declared, “the sense of freedom, pure air and light, the magic of distance, and the saturated beauty of color, must be convincingly stated and take the beholder to the very spot.” (as quoted in Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 175)

With this seamless mastery of both the tiniest detail as well as overall effect, Parrish invents a uniquely mystical beauty that transports the viewer into a world of the artist’s own making. Ottaquechee River exemplifies this sense of visual escapism achieved by Parrish at his greatest.

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