Originally painted as the frontispiece for Edith Wharton’s short story “A Venetian Night’s Entertainment,” the present work exemplifies Maxfield Parrish’s celebrated ability to create a portal into a fantastical world. Blending Pre-Raphaelite style and remarkable artistic talent, Parrish imbues Wharton’s narrative subject with visual wonder and delight. An immediate success since its time of execution, A Venetian Night's Entertainment was the first Parrish oil painting to ever be acquired by a museum when it was purchased by the St. Louis Art Museum no later than 1909.
Widely regarded as one of the most popular American illustrators, Parrish received his first magazine commission in 1895 for an Easter cover of Harper's Bazaar. This illustration was the start of a tremendous career that included work for publications including Life, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s. The present work was commissioned directly by the editor of Scribner’s to illustrate the December 1903 issue’s publication of A Venetian Night's Entertainment. The story’s author Wharton had enjoyed working with Parrish on the Century publication of her Italian Villas and Their Gardens, and likely recommended the artist for the subsequent commission.
As the title suggests, both the story and painting A Venetian Night’s Entertainment transport the viewer for a romantic evening in one of Italy’s most magical cities, Venice. Wharton’s story follows a young American man from Massachusetts, Tony, as he explores the dynamic and diverse city and revels in its jovial mood. Wharton writes, “A moment more and he was in the thick of it! Here was the very world of the old print, only suffused with sunlight and colour, and bubbling with merry noises. What a scene it was! A square enclosed in fantastic painted buildings, and peopled with a throng as fantastic: a bawling, laughing, jostling, sweating mob, parti-coloured, parti-speeched, crackling and sputtering under the hot sun like a dish of fritters over a kitchen fire. Tony, agape, shouldered his way through the press, aware at once that, spite of the tumult, the shrillness, the gesticulation, there was no undercurrent of clownishness, no tendency to horse-play, as in such crowds on market-day at home, but a kind of facetious suavity which seemed to include everybody in the circumference of one huge joke.”
The present work captures Tony’s experience when he makes the acquaintance of a Venetian reveler, Count Rialto, and finds himself “hobnobbing over a glass of canary” in the midst of a busy café. As dynamically illustrated in Parrish’s painting, Tony is overcome by the diversity of the characters on hand: “The Italian gentleman, who called himself Count Rialto, appeared to have a very numerous acquaintance, and was able to point out to Tony all the chief dignitaries of the state, the men of ton and ladies of fashion, as well as a number of other characters of a kind not openly mentioned in taking a census of Salem.” In his version of the scene, Parrish cleverly camouflages the protagonist to emphasize the encompassing nature of the crowd, but also to further immerse his viewer within his composition. The cast of characters includes musicians, waiters, revelers and even a street urchin at lower right, all of which evoke a sense of cohesive motion. The characters also all gaze in different directions--towards each other, past each other, up and down--simultaneously unifying the composition and enhancing the sense of dynamic, diagonal movement. In the midst of this scene, the American Yankee is identified by his uptight dress and upright posture as he sits in the center of the composition across from the infinitely more elaborate, expressive Count Rialto.
As demonstrated by this multilayered composition, by the time Parrish completed the present work, he was regularly utilizing overlapping forms of lanterns, architecture and human figures to create a sense of depth, compositional complexity and rhythm within his best works. In A Venetian Night's Entertainment, as in his 1908 work The Lantern Bearers (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas), Parrish particularly employs the effect of light, using it to heighten the imaginary, dreamlike aura of the painting. Here, the numerous waiters, musicians and patrons are silhouetted in front or behind lanterns, increasing their brilliance and ensuring maximum dramatic impact. The figures on the outer limits of the composition are lit with soft and subtle light, while those in the middle ground glow brilliantly in the lanterns’ beams. The contrast between the partially shadowed figures, rendered with soft, curvilinear forms, and the more rectilinear, architectural elements adds further complexity to the composition as well as visual splendor.
These theatrical elements of the scene derive from Parrish’s practice of working in his studio from staged sets. Instead of hiring professional models, he posed his family and friends, believing it allowed him to capture the honest, innocent spirit that he wanted his paintings to exude. As learned under his teacher, acclaimed illustrator Howard Pyle, Parrish would also use authentic costumes to make the fantastic scenes as immersive and real as possible. Indeed, the mysterious garb of the figures in A Venetian Night's Entertainment adds to the fanciful escapism of the overall scene and to the success of the composition.
Further dramatizing the painting, A Venetian Night's Entertainment notably retains its striking, original frame by Stanford White. By 1898, thanks to his early success as an illustrator, Parrish designed and built an elaborate twenty-room house overlooking the Connecticut River in 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 and playwrights. Through his involvement in this scene, Parrish likely made the acquaintance of successful architect Stanford White, who designed this elaborate frame for A Venetian Night's Entertainment. A rare addition, the frame compliments the scene’s architectural background, while its flowing vegetative design elements mimic the movements of the artist’s forms.
As epitomized by the magical spirit of A Venetian Night's Entertainment, Professor Hubert von Herkomer summarized Parrish's success during the early 1900s, "Mr. Parrish has absorbed, yet purified, every modern oddity, and added to it his own strong original identity. He has combined the photographic vision with the pre-Raphaelite feeling. He is poetic without ever being maudlin, and has the saving clause of humor. He can give good suggestiveness without loss of unflinching detail. He has a strong sense of romance. He has a great sense of characterization without a touch of ugliness. He can be modern, medieval, or classic. He has been able to infuse into the most uncompromising realism the decorative element-an extraordinary feat in itself. He is throughout an excellent draughtsman, and his finish is phenomenal...He will do much to reconcile the extreme and sober elements of our times." (as quoted in L.L. Watkins, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospect, 1966, n.p.)