Maxfield Parrish painted The Egyptian Sculptor in 1902 to illustrate George M.R. Twose's story "The Three Caskets" which was featured in the December 1903 issue of St. Nicholas. Although Parrish entered the world of magazine illustration by chance when his work was seen by a member of the Harper's family in New York, it was not long thereafter that Parrish became a recognized and quite successful figure in the commercial art world. In 1895 Parrish received his first magazine commission to illustrate the cover of the Easter Number of Harper's Bazaar. This initial project was met with great praise and led to several years work for Harper's Weekly as well as Scribner's Magazine and Century Magazine. The Egyptian Sculptor was produced to embellish a story in a children's magazine St. Nicholas, another publication of the Century Company.
"The Three Caskets" tells the tale of a beautiful Venetian woman, Portia, whose name translates as the fortune lady. The father of this sought-after lady had made three caskets: one of gold, one of silver and another of lead. Suitors came from faraway lands seeking this unknown beauty and were made to guess which casket held the picture of Portia. The story reads, "From what they had heard of the radiant lady, of her worth and beauty, they had formed an idea or ideal of her in their minds...The thought that each suitor had formed of the fortune-lady was different from the other's ideals of her, and was as good as that particular prince or nobleman was capable of thinking of." (G. Twose, p. 117). The story continues and the myth of another mysterious beauty begins, that of Vera. Vera held a similar mystique but an even greater one as there was nothing so exact about Vera.
The author continues to describe the three suitors of Vera--the first described, the Prince of Egypt, is the subject of this illustration. The Prince of Egypt had formed a very beautiful image of Vera and "when he saw that he could not find Vera anywhere in any particular place, he serenely imagined her as being everywhere, and she was thus the world. He said, "She is whatever is, or has been, and her veil no mortal has ever lifted." (G. Twose, p, 122) Pining each and every day for his mysterious princess, the Prince of Egypt was content and certain he would find her, so in her honor he made her a magnificent casket. The casket "was made of stone, and carved all over it were pictures of Vera, and thoughts of the prince about her. It was very high and very long...The strength of this casket was a sign of the strength of his faith." (G. Twose, p. 122)
Maxfield Parrish's wonderful illustration within this story is a testament to his creative powers. Parrish chose to depict a most telling and evocative moment of the tale. The Prince of Egypt, with chisel and hammer in hands, contemplates his ideal as he delineates the form of Vera on the grand casket he erected in her honor. Parrish selected a serene, pensive moment which echoes the silence and calm of the barren Egyptian desert in the distance. The subdued palette of gray, brown and white further intensifies the sublime quality of the setting and the action. Adding mystery to mystery is the young androgynous figure Parrish placed at the prince's side. Most likely 'he' is a servant although fitting for the environment the youth lacks any tell-tale signs of 'his' role.
This intriguing magazine illustration was executed early in Parrish's career which spanned almost three quarters of a century into the 1960s. And in some respects The Egyptian Sculptor is closer in style to his book illustrations for it coincides with a story rather than serving as a cover of a newsstand publication. This gave the work a greater degree of subtlety and suggestiveness than generally afforded to most magazine commissions which depended on a broad and simple style. Painted in 1902, the year before Parrish travelled to Italy in order to illustrate Edith Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens, The Egyptian Sculpor share the same quiet palette and tranquil nature of the Italian pictures. It also bears close resemblance to a work of 1901 from Scribner's Magazine titled Cardinal Archbishop Sat on His Shaded Balcony with its similar use of shadows and its unusual composition. All of these work defy the symmetry Parrish came to relish in the 1920s, and as such they do not possess the static and predictable feeling that some symmetrical works do.
One interesting link between The Egyptian Sculptor and other works by Parrish is the inclusion of a fairly undefined reclining nude. As Coy Ludwig points out, this figure and its mirrored image anticipate two of Parrish's most celebrated works, Daybreak and Garden of Allah, both of the early 1920s. There is no definite explanation for this type of figure than it being a young, nymph-like person from a distant place, but it is a type he turned to again and again, and interestingly he did so in his most accomplished works.
The Egyptian Sculptor is a wonderful early example of Parrish's incredible sense of imagination. His ability to capture the sense of place is remarkable considering it was achieved through a completely literal description. In Parrish's later works, mainly his landscapes, he also succeeds in capturing an essence of a place, but generally those places are composites of places the artist had travelled to. When examining a piece, like The Egyptian Sculptor, which is purely imaginative, one begins to get a sense of Parrish's true creative genius.