Daybreak is an American icon and Maxfield Parrish's most celebrated masterwork. A blazing commercial success, the painting is a breathtaking panorama of mythical beauty. The most popular American illustrator after World War I, Parrish was commissioned to paint Daybreak by the art publishing firm, House of Art, in August of 1920. The painting was to be his first work commissioned solely for the purpose of reproduction as a color lithographic print to be distributed to the American public. Daybreak became one of the most reproduced paintings in American history. It was estimated that one of every four households had a copy of the work making it a national sensation and cultural phenomenon.
Daybreak seamlessly combines the diverse influences of Parrish's early career with his fully developed technique and vision. The consummate masterwork displays Parrish's ability to blend Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, Old Master technique, a strict adherence to laws of proportion and a commercial sensitivity into an iconic work of astounding beauty and widespread appeal. The painting is a portal to an Arcadian fantasy that exudes innocence and mystical beauty. The dazzling landscape, bathed in dawn's rising sun is testimony to the artist's mastery of light and color, the detailed leaves and blossoms to his exacting nature.
Frederick Maxfield Parrish was born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1870, to Elizabeth Bancroft Parrish and Stephen Parrish, an artist who gained recognition for his etchings of New England scenery. "Fred" (he did not drop his first name professionally until the mid-1890s) showed signs of interest in art and architecture at a very young age. His father fostered and encouraged the young boy's fledgling artistic talent bringing him on painting trips starting at the age of six. This included extended stays in Europe in 1877 and again from 1884 to 1886, which introduced Parrish to the works of the Old Masters and Pre-Raphaelites whose techniques, subjects and sentiment he would incorporate into his art. Lord Frederick Leighton was of particular influence; Parrish would attempt to emulate not only his art, but also his lifestyle. In addition to the fine arts, Parrish was exposed to and embraced the worlds of music, literature and theater, all of which would prove to be influential to his work.
Impressed by the Gothic and Renaissance architecture of Europe, upon his return to the United States Parrish enrolled in the class of 1892 at Haverford College with the intention of becoming an architect. Residing with the young art critic Christian Brinton, Parrish adorned the walls of his and his friends' dormitory rooms, as well as his now famous chemistry notebook, with elaborate, spontaneous decorations. Having so relished these leisure time activities and having realized that a career in architecture demanded subservience to clients, he left Haverford in his junior year to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with the intention of becoming an artist. Although he changed his focus, the rigid forms and methods and the sense of scale and proportion that he had acquired in his architectural studies would govern Parrish's art throughout his career.
From 1892 to 1894 Parrish studied at PAFA under Robert Vonnoh and Thomas Anshutz with contemporaries including William Glackens. It was during this period that he acquired the skills and techniques that would come to define his ouevre. Anshutz introduced the artist to the world of photography, which would become a key component of his creative process, and inspired Parrish to experiment with unmixed colors-the basis of the technique of glazing that Parrish later mastered and made a cornerstone of his work.
During his time at PAFA, Parrish also studied under acclaimed illustrator Howard Pyle at The Drexel Institute of the Arts in Philadelphia. Pyle quickly recognized Parrish's unique and individual style and told him that he was beyond his coursework. The young artist went away from Pyle's studio with an interest in historic subject matter and period costumes, both of which feature prominently in much of Parrish's work. Pyle was not only a great influence on Parrish's style, he was also active in helping the young artist obtain his first magazine commission, for Harper's Bazaar's 1895 Easter cover. This was the beginning of a series of magazine and book illustration projects for Parrish. He worked for publications such as Life, Scribner's and Harper's Weekly, and had an exclusive contract with Collier's from 1904 to 1910. "Maxfield Parrish's magazine art was, among all else, unmistakably American. He loved doing it and the public loved seeing it. Magazines were an outlet made in heaven for his talent and his business acumen." (L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, Rohnert Park, California, 1995, p. 7)
Parrish was a savvy business man who sought to distinguish his work from his contemporaries'. The "business man with a brush" established lucrative agreements with periodicals and publishers early in his career, carefully controlling the use of his images and demanding royalties on all of his works that were reproduced. Parrish's single word titles were unique, easy to remember and differentiated his work from his colleagues' who used entire sentences to describe the subject of their paintings. Parrish began this clever practice with Moonrise (1893), and continued it throughout his career inviting "the viewer's introspection and intellectual involvement" (Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, p. 8) and adding to the appeal of his works.
Parrish began experimenting with landscapes 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 that had a profound effect on his landscape painting. During the winters of 1901-02 and 1902-03, Parrish traveled in 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." (Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 171) These majestic mountains were the origin of the idealized terrains that became signature of his later works including Daybreak.
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 book 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. The classical porticos, garden pools and architecture that Parrish encountered on this trip subsequently appeared in much of his work. One of the oils Parrish painted during this trip, Villa Este (1904, Private collection) depicts a prescient scene of a nude on a stage-like ledge overlooking a lake (fig. 1).
Although Parrish was commissioned to paint Daybreak in August of 1920, he was preoccupied with other projects, such as the illustration for Louise Saunders' Knave of Hearts, and did not begin work on the painting until the summer of 1922. He had, however, been prophetically referring to it as his "Magnum Opus" since receiving the commission. Writing to Stephen L. Newman, co-owner of House of Art, in 1921, Parrish said of his delay in starting the painting, "As to the 'great painting,' its beautiful white panel is always on the wall before me, and I am thinking great things into it. I have thought so many beautiful things into it that it ought to make a good print just as it is. Have patience." (Maxfield Parrish, p. 141) While Parrish's art had previously been reproduced as prints--his first color reproduction was a cover for Ladies' Home Journal entitled Air Castles (1904, Private collection)--it had originally been produced for magazines, books and advertisements and thus restricted in subject and composition. The commission of Daybreak had no such limitations and gave Parrish a newfound creative autonomy; it is not surprising that the work had such a long incubation period.
The commission of Daybreak was prompted by the art-print successes of The Rubaiyat (1916, Collection of Alma Gilbert), Cleopatra (1917, St. Regis Sheraton Hotel, New York) and Garden of Allah (1918, Private collection) (fig. 2), which were originally contracted as decorations for Crane's Chocolates Christmas gift boxes from 1916 to 1918. Clarence Crane began to include an order form for prints of the covers as a source of additional revenue. "The demand for reproductions of Parrish's decoration grew so great that Crane arranged for House of Art, the New York fine arts publishing and distributing firm, to handle the marketing of the prints...Crane's reproductions helped to create an unprecedented public demand for Parrish's paintings in the art-print market and with it the assurance of continued financial security for the artist." (Maxfield Parrish, pp. 135, 138) This success allowed Parrish to stop working for magazines and resultant royalties from Daybreak permitted him to stop taking book commissions.
Garden of Allah was the most popular of the three Crane's prints and is second only to Daybreak in print sales for Parrish's works. The painting depicts three women lounging by a pool in a lush sun-filled garden full of flowering trees. While the title connotes the exotic, the only indication of this in the work is the women's headdresses. For their commission, Newman and his partner, A.E. Reinthal recommended that Parrish make an image that would reproduce to a similar size and shape as Garden of Allah. The two works share many attributes as Parrish, in attempting to eclipse Garden of Allah's mass appeal, sought to mimic the work's successes.
Both paintings depict reclining figures by a pool clad in "a type of Grecian peplos with girdle favored by the artist...like 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's Magazine Easter cover) and a variety of other paintings. The costume, reminiscent of those in Leighton's work, combines with the stage-like classical architectural elements to simultaneously conjure the archaic and contemporary performance.
Parrish's mastery of light is an important factor in the success of both works. Sun rays flit through the leaves dappling the architecture with patterns of light and shadow incorporating them into the composition, indicating the time of day and adding a pattern element; the large urns and columns also frame the action and give the works a sense of symmetry, an important aspect of Parrish's work.
One of Parrish's greatest gifts was his ability to identify what captivated the American public. In Daybreak and Garden of Allah he conflates modern and archaic elements with a sense of the theatrical in a technically masterful style to create strikingly beautiful works that are simultaneously exotic fantasy and accessible to the common American. "Both contemporary and archaic at the same time, Parrish had discovered a 'formula,' a unique style, a method which uncompromisingly won every time it was employed. It was a nearly scientific system, and it led him to become one of the greatest illustrators in history and the most beloved artist of the first half of the twentieth century." (Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, p. 4)
Daybreak, however, has a greater drama than Garden of Allah. The water behind the portico rather than in the foreground gives the sense of a stage and flattens the work removing the mid-ground depth present in Garden of Allah, and emphasizing the majestic background landscape that is absent in the earlier work. While the jewel-like flowering trees are treated with the same attention to detail, they are far sparser in the less fecund Daybreak, framing rather than enclosing the work and recalling the rising curtain of a play. There is a small break in the foliage of Garden of Allah revealing a sliver of landscape. In contrast, Daybreak's breathtaking, highly developed mountains are central to the composition and the main source of drama in the work. Daybreak is a much less crowded arrangement having two figures instead of three. This was a conscious decision as Parrish originally intended to have three figures as indicated by his preparatory sketch for the work (fig. 3). The nude figure of a youth, modeled by his eleven year old daughter, Jean, symbolizes an innocence and freedom not found in Garden of Allah. This sprightly figure is an avatar for the fresh prospect of the new day. Finally, the palette of Daybreak is largely composed of cool blue and purple hues illustrating the spectacular effect of the rising sun on the landscape, architecture and figures. This is a far more dramatic color scheme than the warm yellows and greens of Garden of Allah.
The magic and spirit of boundless possibility embodied in Daybreak 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 tedious method of painting with glazes. Beginning in the summer of 1922, every detail in the seminal picture was manipulated so as to create an effective design.
Parrish used "Dynamic Symmetry", the principals of Jay Hambidge, a Yale University Professor, to lay out the composition. This theory was based on a rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek formulas to create harmonic proportions in architecture and art. "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) The preparatory sketch for Daybreak has the carefully measured penciled lines of "dynamic symmetry" (fig. 4). The appeal of this ordered method for Parrish lies in his architectural background. The harmony that it creates in a composition is one of the reasons that so many people find Parrish's works aesthetically appealing.
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 instead worked from these photographs. This served as a form of artistic shorthand and was influenced by his earlier studies with Anshutz and Pyle. He eschewed professional models, often asking family and friends to pose for his works as he believed that these ingénues captured the spirit of innocence that he wanted his paintings to exude.
Kitty Owen Spence, William Jennings Bryan's granddaughter, who owned the work from the late 1960s until 1974, posed as the reclining maiden in Daybreak. Kitty also modeled for The Canyon (1923, Private collection), Morning (1922, Private collection) and Wild Geese (1924, Collection of Dr. Ronald Lawson, Memphis Tennessee). Parrish's daughter, Jean, who was eleven at the time, posed as the standing figure (fig. 5). As shown in the sketch (fig. 6), and previously mentioned, Parrish originally intended to have a third seated figure near the column at right.
Parrish then made cut-outs of the figures that he planned to include in Daybreak (fig. 7) and used these with a variety of props in his studio to set up the exact positioning and lighting of the different elements in the nascent composition. His time-consuming glazing technique made painting from nature virtually impossible as light would shift before he could capture it. He often used clever methods of reproducing grand components in his studio, for mountainous landscapes such as the one in Daybreak he used broken quartz rocks placed on a mirror. 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. 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 let him focus on color rather than composition when he began to paint.
Central to Daybreak's beauty 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 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." (as quoted in Maxfield Parrish Papers, Hanover, New Hampshire) Parrish subsequently layered pure pigment and varnish over and over to achieve a heightened vibrancy of colors resulting in a smooth, richly luminous surface. Daybreak's enamel-like saturation is a trademark of Parrish's work. The intense blue of the sky radiating out from behind the foliage in the left of the composition was known as "Parrish Blue" amongst his colleagues. Parrish's mastery of color is at its apex in the powerful band of teal water, purple mountains and jewel-toned foliage.
Parrish's glazing technique imbues Daybreak not only with rich, bold colors, but also with soft variegated light and a sense of wonder. His seamless presentation masterfully captures both the gentle and dramatic effects of dawn's muted radiance on the figures and landscape. The hazy early morning atmosphere cloaks the mountains farthest in the background, while those in the front are in sharp focus, vibrantly colored and dappled with purple shadows giving the masterwork a spectacular sense of depth and indicate the sun's movement as maiden and mountains awaken from their slumber to greet the day. The contrast between the smooth partially shadowed figures and architectural elements with the sharply detailed foliage and craggy terrain adds complexity of illumination and texture. Parrish's passionate attention to detail in the presentation of the majestic topography manifests his life-long interest in the effect of light on nature as well as foreshadowing his shift to exclusively painting landscapes in the 1930s.
The patience of his patrons, Stephen Newman and his partner, A.E. Reinthal, was rewarded. Parrish finally completed Daybreak in December of 1922 and when the image was offered for sale in 1923, the consumer response was unprecedented making it one of the most reproduced paintings in American history. "In 1925, one out of every four households in the United States had a copy of Parrish's art print Daybreak hanging in its living room. Reproductions of that print outsold every other artist of the times, with the exception of Cézanne and Van Gogh, Without peer, he was the most popular American illustrator after World War I." (Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, p. 14) Although he subsequently attempted to match the art print success of Daybreak with works such as Hilltop (1926, David Stoner, Sunnyvale, California), Stars (1926, Howard Hoffman, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) and Twilight (1935, Private collection), Parrish was never again able to so fully captivate the American public. "His art print Daybreak (1922) is still the most reproduced art image of all time, exceeding even the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper." (Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, p. 44)
The immense popularity of Daybreak lies in Parrish's ability to blend the common with the exotic to create a romanticized scene of mythic beauty that is accessible to every American. It is a technically masterful opus in which all elements combine to create a world that is simultaneously foreign and comprehensible; seductive but not intimidating. Parrish's ability to create a mystical utopia from the everyday things around him is at its peak in the masterwork of visual escapism. When asked by House of Art to write a paragraph to accompany the work, Parrish declined, saying "Alas, you have asked the very one thing that is entirely beyond me, to write a little story of Daybreak, or, in fact, of any other picture. I could do almost anything in the world for you but that. I know full well that public want a story, always want to know more about a picture than the picture tells them but to my mind if a picture does not tell its own story, it's better to have the story without the picture. I couldn't tell a single thing about Daybreak because there isn't a single thing to tell; the picture tells all there is, there is nothing more." (as quoted in Maxfield Parrish, p. 143) This, similar to Parrish's single-word title, leaves the work open to interpretation allowing viewers to cast their own personal meaning onto Daybreak.