The Young Gleaner spectacularly embodies Maxfield Parrish's unique ability to blend Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, Old Master technique and American Illustration’s mass appeal into a beautiful and enduring painting with timeless allure. A portal into a fantastical world with enchanting castles and strikingly beautiful and bold women, The Young Gleaner glows with an otherworldly light, drawing the viewer into the tapestry of Parrish’s imagination. Featuring his characteristic bright blue landscape as well as one of his trademark theatrical figures in striking red, the work manifests all the iconic motifs of Parrish’s best work and stands as an outstanding achievement within his storied career as one of America’s preeminent illustrators.
Parrish’s early success as an illustrator reflected his deep technical and historical immersion in artistic theory. Parrish showed interest in art and architecture at a young age largely inspired by family trips to Europe, where he marveled at the Pre-Raphaelite artists’ bold use of color and romantic subject matter. Equally impressed by the Gothic and Renaissance architecture abroad, Parrish enrolled at Haverford College with the intention of becoming an architect. Residing there with the young art critic Christian Brinton, Parrish adorned the walls of his and his friends’ dormitory rooms, as well as his now famous chemistry notebook, with elaborate decorations. Relishing these leisure pursuits and realizing that a career in architecture did not suit his ambitions, Parrish soon left Haverford and entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under Thomas Anshutz and Robert Vonnoh from 1892-94. Anshutz introduced the artist to the world of photography and also inspired Parrish to experiment with bold, unmixed colors. Parrish also studied at the Drexel Institute of Art and Sciences under acclaimed illustrator Howard Pyle, who quickly recognized Parrish’s unique and individual style.
The fanciful subject matter of The Young Gleaner is typical of Parrish's best work from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Parrish became aware of the commercial appeal of historical scenes and adapted the practice of working from costumed models. This important change in technique reflected the influence of his teacher Pyle, “[who] emphasized to Parrish the importance of historical accuracy and the need for models to wear authentic costumes if at all possible, for the audience wished to transport themselves into the image and fantasize as to its meaning." (L.S. Cutler, J.G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish and the American Imagists, Edison, New Jersey, 2004, p. 74)
Parrish’s professional career as an artist began in 1891 when he accepted numerous commissions that appeared in college publications in and around the Philadelphia area. Then, “in 1895, in a single momentous year, Parrish completed his first mural commission (Old King Cole), sold his first painting and was hired to do his first magazine cover (Easter)." (Parrish and the American Imagists, p. 63) Painted directly after this momentous beginning, The Young Gleaner was originally designed in 1896 as an advertisement for a brewery. The young maid stands stoically in a sun drenched landscape cradling a batch of wheat in her right arm and a sickle by her left side. With her body beautifully silhouetted by the landscape and a brilliant yellow sun encircling her head with an angelic glow, she confronts the viewer with a piercing gaze. Reflecting Parrish’s fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites, her expression recalls the work of Dante Rossetti and Lord Frederic Leighton.
Further emulating these artists, Parrish's masterful handling of paint and his keen understanding of color are clearly evident in The Young Gleaner. As in all his masterworks, Parrish employed a time-consuming glazing technique inspired by Old Master painters. Beginning with a white ground, he then repeatedly layered pure pigment and varnish to achieve a brilliant incandescence. Professor Hubert von Herkomer summarized Parrish's early success, "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.) Epitomizing all of these elements which earned Parrish his renown, The Young Gleaner is a marvel of technical mastery and luminous whimsy.