Maxfield Parrish is widely considered one of America’s greatest illustrators, having successfully published a wide variety of work during his illustrious career, including magazine illustrations, commercial advertisements, calendar images, murals for public spaces and children’s book illustrations. Perhaps best known for the latter category, Parrish’s most celebrated book illustrations are those he completed for Louise Saunders' The Knave of Hearts of 1925.
Following his studies in Philadelphia under Thomas Anshutz, Robert Vonnoh and Howard Pyle, Parrish’s early career featured several notable illustration commissions, such as L. Frank Baum’s Mother Goose in Prose, Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Eugene Field’s Poems of Childhood and a 1908 edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. After a lapse in completing this sort of work, Parrish eagerly returned to book illustrations in 1920, inspired by a manuscript for a children’s play written by Saunders, the wife of Scribner’s editor Maxfield Perkins. Explaining his desire to take on this project, Parrish wrote in an October 24th, 1920 letter to J.H. Chapin of Scribner's: “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, not bound down by the period, just good fun and all sorts of things.” (as quoted in C. Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 48)
The degree to which Parrish reveled in the Knave of Hearts commission is clearly evident in his charming heading illustration The Chefs at the Table. Here, the painter has rendered the amusing theme with characteristic bold design and rich color. Partially as a result of the story’s initial conception as a play, in combination with the target audience being children, Parrish executed each vignette for the illustrated book in a theatrical manner, as if its characters were actors upon a stage. In the case of the present work, Parrish’s chefs were quite literally puppets being controlled by a stage manager in the story. The characters are the first that readers encounter as the manager literally pulls back the curtain on the forthcoming tale, and their exaggerated postures clearly speak to their role as marionettes on a miniature stage. Providing explanation of these characters, the manager proclaims, “You see here, ladies and gentlemen, two pasty cooks belonging to the royal household of Pompdebile the Eighth – Blue Hose and Yellow Hose, by name. At a signal from me they will spring to action as they have been made with astonishing cleverness, they will bear every semblance of life.” (L. Saunders, The Knave of Hearts, 1925, p. 2) As the manager withdraws into the background of the story, his chefs come to life to discuss their roles as the “two finest pastry cooks in the land” preparing to formally judge the creations of the King’s would-be suitor who, if the chefs approve of her “Humming birds’ hearts soufflé, au vin blanc,” will become queen of the Kingdom of Hearts.
With their whimsical designs and vibrant colors, the Knave of Hearts illustrations were a resounding success for Parrish, despite lackluster sales of the book due to the high quality, large-scale publication’s expensive price tag. When exhibited in 1925 at Scott and Fowles Galleries in New York, several of the artist’s original paintings from the series sold for a total in excess of $50,000. The present work, although included in this exhibition, may not have been one of the works sold. Instead, the painting was likely gifted by the artist, as noted by Parrish’s inscription on the backing of the work, “To Robin Hood’s Band.” Parrish scholar Alma Gilbert-Smith postulates, “Evidently, once a year towards the end of summer, a group of distinguished thinkers, academicians, judges and business people who lived or summered in the prestigious Cornish Colony both from [New Hampshire] and [Vermont] met once a year at a retreat high above a mountain top in Springfield, [Vermont] at the home of one of Parrish's friends usually in September to discuss politics and business matters. Parrish was always included. His friends loved his insights and political wit. They usually lunched royally and spent three or four hours together and covered various subjects of interest to the group. Parrish, I believe had dubbed them: ‘Robin Hood's Band.’ I gather that they helped worthy causes with donations albeit secretly. Most of the members seemed very well off financially. Parrish may have donated this oil so that it could be sold and sums sent to the various causes the group helped.” (unpublished letter, February 4, 2017)
The amusing subject, complex design and gem-like surface of Chefs at the Table combine to create an incredibly charming and successful work of art that is quintessentially Parrish. For these reasons, works from Parrish’s celebrated Knave of Hearts series have transcended time, remaining as poignant and enjoyable for today’s audiences, as they did many years ago, and as they surely will for generations to come.