Maxfield Parrish is one of America's greatest illustrators and although he undertook various commissions within a wide spectrum, including magazine illustrations, commercial advertisments, murals in public spaces and calendar images, he is perhaps best remembered as an illustrator of children's books. His most famous book illustrations were those for his last book commission, The Knave of Hearts. One of the most impressive images in this book, Two Pastry Cooks: Blue Hose and Yellow Hose is a wonderful example of Parrish's art.
Parrish received his first book commision in 1897, just a few years after finishing his studies in Philadelphia under Thomas Anshutz, Robert Vonnoh and briefly under Howard Pyle, the great illustrator of the day. The first commission to illustrate L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose was immediately followed by a commission to illustrate a new edition of Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York. The positive reception of these works resulted in a stream of commissions which occupied the artist's creative energies until 1910. These included his famous works for Eugene Field's Poems of Childhood of 1904 and Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales of 1908.
It was not until 1920 that Parrish considered undertaking further book commisions. Residing in the artist's colony of Cornish, New Hampshire, Parrish found his inspiration in a manuscript for a children's play. Written by Louise Saunders, the wife of Scribner's editor, Maxfield Perkins, The Knave of Hearts seemed to offer Parrish a new and exciting project which met his artistic desires. The following words from a letter to Scribner's reveals Parrish's enthusiasm and excitement for the project.
Do you remember years ago when I said I always had the longing to make pictures for another book? This is just to say the longing is still there, and of late the longing seems to be growing into something else. I wonder did you ever read a little play called The Knave of Hearts by Lousie Saunders Perkins?...I have read it and seen it acted, and the thought will not down that it would be a most interesting thing to illustrate...The reason I wanted to illustrate The Knave of Hearts was on account of the bully opportunity it gives for a very good time making the pictures. Imagination could run riot, bound down by no period, just good fun and all sorts of things. (Ludwig, p. 48)
Parrish's interest was reciprocated by the publisher and over the next three years Parrish completed twenty-six paintings for the book which was published in a voluptuous and large format (14 x 11 1/2in.) and made use of the best paper and printing techniques available at that time.
The illustrations Parrish made for The Knave of Hearts were rich in color, bold in design and amusing in content. Because the book was written as a play, Parrish conceived the figures more like actors on a stage than characters in a story, and as such they are depicted in a distinct fashion. Targeted towards an audience of children, the book demanded a simple, clear style with figures donning exaggerated gestures and pose. Two Pastry Cooks exemplifies this type. The intricate details within the work express much of the style, mood and humor of the story.
Two Pastry Cooks which appears at the beginning of the book does not illustrate a specific moment in the play but rather provides an image of the cooks in a decorative and playful setting. Wearing "flaring white caps, spotless aprons" and "holding wooden spoons three feet long" (L. Saunders), the two cooks face eachother in profile, "stiff as puppets they are supposed to represent." (C. Ludwig, p. 53) Bowing towards each other in front of a low cabinet lined with three shiny copper pots, the two cooks stand below an ornate, heart motif clock centered in the archway of a colonnade. In a typical manner, Parrish repeats the heart motif in the hinges as well as in other illustrations in the book.
This wonderfully decorative picture was painted around 1924 after Parrish was exposed to Jay Hambidge's theory of dynamic symmetry published in 1919 and adhered to by many artists of the day. Dynamic symmetry called for the mathematical reduction of design into a series of rectangles which resulted in the balance and harmony of pictorial images. Parrish found great use in the theory's ability to ensure formal design cohesion and was attracted to its strict, methodical nature. Two Pastry Cooks was arranged in an almost perfectly symmetrical composition, and aside from the hinges on the cabinet, the two sides of the picture are pratically mirror images. The balance and harmony of the composition lends a simplicity, clarity and sense of comedy to the work.
Along with the symmetrical arrangement, there are several other features of this painting which are typical of Parrish's style and demonstrate his unique creative imagination. From childhood into his mature days, Parrish was intrigued by technology and construction and worked avidly in his fully equipped machine shop situated in the basement of his studio. There the artist created a plethora of props (vases, urns, candlesticks) which he turned out on his lathe and incorporated into his paintings. In addition to enjoying the manufacturing of the objects, Parrish used the objects a props in an effort to achieve harmony and balance. In this picture, the large copper pots, the elaborate hardware of the cabinet and the intricate clock were most likely first designed and created in his workshop. The columns were also made by rolling up paper into long cylindrical forms.
Two Pastry Cooks also reveals Parrish's use of cut-outs as well as his mastery of the technique of glazing. Parrish went to great lengths to create effective designs that would maintain their original clarity after multiple reproductions. Strong silhouettes, created by paper cut-outs, were essential features in achieving this end. In this work, it is the figures and the spoons which are treated as silhouettes outlined with clear definition. The two figures are delineated in such an identical fashion that it is likely that it was one cut-out used twice. An adept draftsmen, Parrish viewed this method as a means of increasing his artistic production and ridding himself of time-consuming drawing.
Probably the most impressive element of this work is the artist's masterful handling of the paint and his keen understanding of color. Parrish learned the technique of glazing from a study of Old Master pictures while travelling in Europe. The technique of painting with glazes was a slow, meticulous process, but one which resulted in magnificent luminosity. Parrish worked up from a base of white which served to light the canvas from the first layer up through the last. Paint was applied directly from the tube, and in between layers of paint the artist applied layers of varnish. This application of varnish heightened the vibrancy of the colors and resulted in a smooth, rich surface. Aside from the artist's ability to capture areas of brilliant, pure color, he captured with great sensitivity the subtle variations of color on the metallic surface of the spoon and pots.
Two Pastry Cooks is a marvelous example of the illustrations in The Knave of Hearts and possesses several of the hallmarks of Parrish's finest work. The amusing subject, the interesting design, the gem-like surface and the vivid color culminate in a delightful pictorial image which has amused children and adults from the 1920s until this day. Two Pastry Cooks is a masterwork of American illustration.