Maxfield Parrish's career as a muralist began with his 1895 mural of Old King Cole painted for the University of Pennsylvania Mask and Wig Club, the first of eleven mural projects that he completed throughout his career. The artist's ability to blend Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, Old Master technique, a strict adherence to laws of proportion and a sense of wonder is nowhere more evident than in these large-scale works. The wondrously fanciful North Wall Panel is exemplary of Parrish's power to create a portal into an imaginary world as well as a testament to his mastery of light, color and composition.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had the architects of her New York City home, Delano and Aldrich, approach Parrish to commission a mural in 1909. The mural was originally intended for her Fifth Avenue mansion, but in 1910 the location was changed to her sculpture studio in Old Westbury, Long Island. After much delay, Parrish finally began the murals in 1914. Parrish produced four murals for Whitney's studio of which North Wall Panel is the largest. These panels were liberating for Parrish as, since they were private commission and not meant to be reproduced, he did not have the color restrictions associated with painting a work to be produced as a lithograph. In North Wall Panel Parrish employs a myriad of brilliant hues and patterns to create a captivating and complex, multi-figural scene. The figures in this fanciful panorama are dressed in jewel-toned and patterned costumes presenting a visual symphony of color and form. Parrish uses their dramatic gestures and compositional symmetry to imbue the mural with tremendous visual power and belie his lifelong interest in theater.
The initial visual impact of North Wall Panel cedes to awe at the tremendous amount of detail in the work such as the individualization of each figure, their animated facial expressions and the drapery and design of their costumes and the fully rendered, fanciful background. This exacting detail and attention to the various textures and surfaces as well as the playful and humorous nature of the scene are characteristic of Parrish's greatest works. North Wall Panel, with its various vignettes, demonstrates Parrish's ability to capture an entire narrative in a single, theatrical scene.
The magic and spirit of North Wall Panel 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 principals 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 L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, San Francisco, California, 1995, p. 2) Once the structure of the composition was laid out, Parrish would take photographs of his costumed models. Instead of spending hours drawing from the actual model, Parrish worked from these photographs. This served as a form of artistic shorthand and was influenced by his earlier studies with Thomas Anshutz and Homer Pyle. He eschewed professional models, often asking family and friends to pose for his works as he believed that these ingnues captured the spirit of innocence that he wanted his paintings to exude. Indeed Parrish incorporated many portraits into North Wall Panel including those of himself, his wife Lydia, his favorite model, Sue Lewin, and his friends, Percy and Marion Mackaye, Adeline Pone Adams and Kimball Daniels among others. As with all his best works, Parrish combines and transforms these highly personal portraits into a magical work of timeless appeal.