At the age of sixty, with considerable fame and praise, Maxfield Parrish turned to landscape painting, beginning a new phase of his career with the enthusiasm and energy of a young artist. Although Parrish experimented with landscape painting throughout the preceding years, by 1930 he turned exclusively to the subject. The present painting, Evening: By the River, is a wonderful example of the artist's landscapes, possessing many of the celebrated hallmarks of Parrish's style.
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." (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 heading 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 until his death, and naturally his immediate surroundings became the basis for his landscapes. However, as suggested by Mr. Ludwig, the artist's experiences in Italy and the Southwest remained vivid in his artistic imagination.
Unlike most landscape painters preceding him, Parrish preferred to work in his studio, seeking to imbue his pictures with a greater impact than a purely factual recording of a place. In an effort to create images of nature with an otherworldly and idealized character, Parrish painted in a precise, methodical manner that was very calculated and often entailed manipulating nature. In producing Evening: By the River and other landscapes of the period, Parrish went to great lengths to compose highly imaginative and fully spirited images. Discussing his painting, The Spirit of Transportation, Parrish wrote: "the tree was taken outside my studio window here; the brook was from the back of Windsor (Vermont), the rocks from Bellows Falls, and a mountain or two from Arizona. And I've heard some say they had been to just that spot." (C. Ludwig, "Maxfield Parrish: Sharp-Focus Visionary," American Art Review, 3, March/April 1976, p. 87)
The magic and spirit embodied in Evening: By the River is the result of an intricate approach to painting that was unique to Maxfield Parrish. Parrish 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, the use of photography, the employment of props and models constructed in his workshop as well as a painstaking method of painting with glazes. Every detail in a picture was manipulated so as to create an effective design. The effect of a smooth, rich surface was also the result of Parrish's method of glazing. The technique of painting with glazes was a slow, meticulous process, but one which resulted in magnificent luminosity. Parrish worked from a base of white which served to light the canvas from the first layer up through to the last. Paint was applied directly from the tube, and in between layers of paint, the artist applied a layer of varnish. This application of varnish heightened the vibrancy of the colors and resulted in a smooth, rich surface. Parrish felt strongly about the purity of color and the resulting effect it made on the picture as a whole. In an unknown article, the artist expresses 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 use 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, Maxfield Parrish Papers, Hanover, New Hampshire)
Evening: By the River possesses several quintessential features of Parrish's landscape style. In characteristic fashion, Parrish arranged the composition with a clear and natural flow from the women in the foreground, up the mirrored river to the brightly colored mountains and to the glowing sky above. The large trees and rocks that are featured prominently are painted in a manner unique to Parrish, who often said "'Only God can make a tree.' True enough but I'd like to see him paint one." As stated by Coy Ludwig, this "statement reflects the kind of painting skill and knowledge of nature that Parrish knew was required for painting trees as he painted them--with subtle variations of color and gradations of light and shadow, accurately depicting light filtering through the layers of precisely detailed foliage." (Maxfield Parrish, p. 177)
Maxfield Parrish explains his approach to landscape painting which comes to fruition in Evening: By the River, "You mention 'realism': that I think, is a term which has to be defined: 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, in fact all the qualities that give a body the delights of out of doors. You can not sit down and paint such things; they are not there, or do not last but for a moment. 'Realism' of impression, the mood of the moment, yes, but not the realism of things. The colored photograph can do that much better. That's the trouble with so much art today, it is factual, and stop right there." (Maxfield Parrish, p. 185)