Maxfield Parrish. Part 2.

                                           Maxfield Parrish in 1896

More and more illustration commissions came in to Maxfield and soon he was becoming financially sound.  In 1898, with money earnt and financial help from his father, Maxfield and Lydia felt able to purchase some land atop a hill in Plainfield, New Hampshire, which overlooked Mount Ascutney.  Here Maxfield built a one-room cabin.  Lydia would often remain in Philadelphia to carry on teaching which also allowed Maxfield to carry on with his own work as well as planning and building a larger home for them.  Maxfield and Lydia would stay with his parents at their large home, Northcote, whilst their new home was being built. Maxfield’s father and mother had moved to Cornish, New Hampshire in 1894 where there was a thriving artist’s colony founded by the American sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens. 

                                 An aerial view of The Oaks, the former estate of Maxfield Parrish.

Maxfield and Lydia’s new home, known as The Oaks, was built on a large tract of land on an isolated hillside across the valley from his father’s home and close to the Vermont-New Hampshire border.  It comprised of a guest house, studio, and 45 acres of hillside land and was so named because of the magnificent trees next to their home especially one giant old oak tree. 

Maxfield Parrish drew inspiration from his Plainfield, New Hampshire home, “The Oaks,”

The Oaks was built around the trees and rocks on the hillside site. The largest white oak in Sullivan County, New Hampshire, stands near what was the front entrance of the house, and the ground floor was built on two levels to accommodate a large rock ledge.

Night in the desert by Maxfield Parrish. From “The Great South West” by Ray Stannard Baker (1902)

Two years after Maxfield and Lydia had moved into their newly built home,  he had a health scare.  Lydia, whilst teaching at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, received an urgent telegram from her father-in-law telling her that Maxfield had been taken seriously ill and she should return home immediately.  Lydia instantly left her school and took the train to Windsor.  She would never return to her teaching position at Drexel nor would she carry on with the private students she had been tutoring.  Maxfield Parrish was diagnosed as contracting tuberculosis which at the time was a deadly illness.  Lydia stayed with her husband despite the disease being highly contagious.   After being discharged from hospital, Lydia followed her husband to a Saranac Lake sanatorium in New York State where he underwent treatment and began his recuperation.   The sanatorium treatment was expensive but financial help came to Maxfield through a cheque for five hundred dollars given to him by his best friend and neighbour, the American writer, Winston Churchill.  Churchill who had also settled in the area in the same year as Maxfield in 1898, became great friends. The two were of a similar age, and Churchill had married the same year as Maxfield and Lydia.  During the convalescent years between 1900 and 1901 Parrish painted at Saranac Lake, New York and at Hot Springs, Arizona,

Cowboys by Maxfield Parrish. From “The Great South West” by Ray Stannard Baker (1902)

Whilst convalescing at Saranac Lakes Parrish received a commission from Century Magazine to illustrate the Ray Stannard Baker series entitled Great South West and from the money Parrish received, he was able to afford to further convalesce in Castle Creek Hot Springs in Arizona during the winter of 1901-02.  Maxfield and Lydia returned home to The Oaks in April 1902.  The Spring and summer of 1902 up until 1904 was probably the happiest Lydia had ever been.  No children as yet, she was able to devote time to cultivate the garden and time for her to paint, it was just as life should be for her.

             Edith Wharton’s book Italian Villas and Their Gardens, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield’s health had improved and he was now looking out for new commissions.  In 1903 Maxfield accepted a commission from Century Magazine to illustrate Edith Wharton’s book Italian Villas and Their Gardens which they were going to serialise.

Villa d’Este, Tivoli, near Rome. The Pool at Villa d’Este, illustration by Maxfield Parrish (1903) for Edith Wharton’s book.

For him to complete this commission Maxfield decided to travel to Italy and photograph and then paint the different villas that Wharton would be writing about in her book. Days after his marriage he had “abandoned” his wife to go to Europe on his own but this time she accompanied him, and in a way, it made up for the honeymoon they had missed at the time of their wedding.  It was a time when Maxfield and Lydia became very close.  Sadly, for her, it was to be the only trip she would make with him.

Scribner’s Magazine (October 1900) by Maxfield Parrish

All artists need models and many married male artists often use their young wives.  Before Lydia Parrish gave birth to their first child in 1904, she was Maxfield’s model in a number of his works including the Scribner Magazine October 1900 cover.

                                                          Page from the book Story of Ann Powel

She also modelled for Maxfield’s beautiful full-page drawing of Ann Powel, framed by a simple doorway, to accompany Annie Tynan’s piece in the 1900 Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, The Story of Ann Powel.

                                              Potpourri by Maxfield Parrish (1905)

Maxfield Parrish also used himself as a model for some of his paintings.  One example of this is his 1905 illustration, Potpourri, which featured in Scribner’s Magazine in August 1905.   The illustration depicts a nude boy picking flowers in the forest. The large sun is peeking through the foliage and typically of Parrish there are two columns and a large fountain or urn. It is reputed that Parrish attached a string to his camera and snapped the photo of himself to use as the model for the illustration.  The illustration was drawn to illustrate a poem by H.C. Dwight and the line:

“…Ah, never in the world were there such roses as ones from that enchanted trellis hung…”

                                                                                   Lydia Parrish (1895)

Lydia Parrish’s modelling days had come to an end in 1904 when she became pregnant with their first child, John Dilwyn, who was born that December.  For the previous years, Lydia Parrish had been an equal partner with her husband.  She would entertain his and her friends as well as prospective clients.  She ably ran the household, managed the household finances, and oversaw the domestic help that had finally come to assist her after the birth of Dillwyn in December 1904. In 1905, she was expecting their second child, and was struggling to look after her first child as well as running the household for her husband, not to mention the lack of time she had for her own art and her writing.  It was decided that Lydia needed more help and so, Maxfield and Lydia Parrish hired sixteen-year-old Susan Lewin who had been working at Maxfield Parrish’s father’s house, Northcote, since she was fourteen and was pleased at Stephen Parrish’s suggestion that she should help his son and daughter-in-law.  She received a wage of a dollar a day plus board and lodgings.  Sadly, life for Maxfield and Lydia would never be the same again !!!

                                                                                          Susan Lewin

Young Susan Lewin was born in the farm town of Harland Vermont on November 22nd 1889.  She was one of six children of Elmer and Nellie Lewin and because of the household’s financial problems had to abandon school after only two years in order to become a wage earner.  She was a tall and willowy young woman with thick cascading hair and an oval face with large expressive eyes and a classic profile. She first met Maxfield when she was working for his father at Northcote and his good looks and charm was not lost on her.  She had just the romantic appearance which reminded Maxfield of the ladies depicted in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which he loved, and her good looks and charm was probably not lost on him! 

                                                                                       Susan Lewin

The arrival of their first child caused problems for Maxfield as he was constantly being interrupted by noise whist trying to concentrate on his painting and so, had a builder, George Ruggles, build a fifteen-room studio, some forty feet across the lawn from the main house.   The building comprised of three bedrooms, a kitchen, two painting rooms, two bathrooms, a dark room for his photography and rooms to store all his artistic paraphernalia which he used to construct his compositions.  Here he could paint in peace.  For his wife Lydia, her painting days were over.  She had to look after their children and keep them from disturbing her husband! The relationship between Maxfield Parrish and Susan Lewin was symbiotic.  She tended to him hand and foot.  She was passive and obedient and always eager to please and was amenable to all his wishes.  She was an excellent cook and a perfect servant to her master.  Later her two sisters, Annie and Emily joined the household as extra help for Mrs Parrish.

                                                             Harvest by Maxfield Parrish (1905)

In the early days of Sue Lewin’s stay at The Oaks she did receive a number of suitors but nothing became of them.  However, one suitor, Kimball Daniels, also began courting Sue’s sister Annie and eventually in 2011 the two were married.  He worked for the Parrish family tending their sheep and cows as well as harvesting the crops.  Kimball was the model for Parrish’s 1905 painting, Harvest.  We see him standing proudly on a hillock, scythe in hand.  Tragically he was found dead from a broken neck on the property twenty months after his marriage.

                                Land of Make Believe by Maxfield Parrish (1905)

Not only did Susan Lewin help Maxfield’s wife with childcare she also became a model for some of Maxfield’s paintings.   The first painting for which the sixteen-year-old girl posed was entitled Land of Make-Believe.  The painting depicts two figures in a verdant and enchanted garden. The taller figure on the right is based on a photograph of Susan Lewin in costume.  She stands in a contrapposto pose among blooming climbing roses. The two figures are attired in medieval costume and this adds to the unreality of the scene. Maxfield Parrish’s idealized fantasy worlds he created in his painting, such as this one, appealed to the buying public. These works were simply pictorial escapism and his fantasy world helped them believe there were safe and gentle places which were so different from the world they currently lived in.  Parrish’s illustration was used as the frontispiece to Rosamund Marriott Watson’s Make-Believe published in Scribner’s Magazine in August 1912. Marriott Watson’s poem reminisces about the care-free childhood world of “let’s pretend” filled with enchanted woods, castles, and witches.

In the 1995 book, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, by Laurence and Judy Cutler, they wrote about Maxfield’s delight at having Susan in the household:

“…When Susan bounded around The Oaks with babes in arms, Parrish watched her with fascination. He imagined her as his counterpart to Lord Leighton’s companion model, Dene. When he first asked her to model for him and that first pose resulted in the painting Land of Make-Believe, Parrish was so happy with the outcome that he began to use Susan as his constant model…”

In the Land of Make-Believe, look closely at the way Parrish has lit up this depiction.  There is a double lighting effect.    The figures in the foreground are illuminated by soft and delicate light, while if you study the cliffs in the background you can see that they glow luminously from the radiance of the setting sun giving the work a feeling of depth whilst the two enormous columns in the middle ground of the depiction anchor Maxfield’s painting as well as acting as a frame for both the foreground and background.  The inclusion of monumental columns like these appear in one of his most famous works – the 1922 painting entitled Daybreak, which turned out to be one of the most replicated paintings in American history and will be discussed in the next part of this series.

Pied Piper mural by Maxfield Parrish (1909)

By 1909 Parrish’s demands on Sue to model for his paintings were becoming increasingly intense.  In 1909 she posed for a number of characters of his large-scale mural The Pied Piper which had been commissioned by the Palace Hotel in San Francisco for their Pied Piper bar and restaurant, a favoured spot of locals and visitors from around the world. 

                                                         Pied Piper bar with Maxfield Parrish mural

The Pied Piper, originally named The Happy Valley Bar, made its grand opening in 1909. Composed specifically for the re-opening after the 1906 earthquake, Maxfield Parrish created The Pied Piper of Hamelin painting, which still graces the hotel after over 100 years.

                   Sweet Nothings – part of the Florentine Fete mural by Maxfield Parrish

In 1910, Edward Bok, the director of Ladies Home Journal offered Maxfield a commission to paint eighteen panels for The Girls’ Dining Room at the Curtis Publishing building in Philadelphia, which was under construction at 6th and Walnut. Each painting would be placed between the windows which overlooked the street. Bok, because the company employed so many females, decided that they should have their own dining room on the top floor.   It was a mammoth assignment and Bok wanted it completed within twelve months and agreed to pay Parrish $2000 per panel.  Parrish completed the first piece, Florentine Fête Mural in July 1910 and he sent it to the building’s architect, Robert Seeler, for him to approve, writing:

“…The scene will be in white marble loggia:  the foreground will be a series of wide steps extending across the entire picture leading up to three arches and supporting columns…It will be my aim to make it joyous, a little unreal, a good place to be in, a sort of happiness of youth…”

Sue Lewin posing for the Sweet Nothings panel (see figure in far right of the mid-ground)

There are over a hundred figures in the panels of the murals and Maxfield had Sue Lewin to model for all but two of them.  It was such a monumental project that both Maxfield and Sue moved out of the main residence at The Oaks and lived in his studio whilst Maxfield’s wife remained at the big house with the children.  Maxfield Parrish was forty-six years of age when he completed the commission and it is interesting to read in Alma Gilbert’s 1990 book, The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin, the artist thought of himself as being much younger.  She wrote:

“…Sue Lewin was the woman who ‘youthened’ Parrish’s spirit.  The Florentine Fête panels are his tribute to that wish to remain young, as embodied by the beautiful young woman who so dominated his art and his thoughts during the midpoint of his life…”

Parrish completed all but one of the mural paintings by 1913 and the final one was finished in 1916.

……………………………….to be continued.


Much of the information for these Maxfield Parrish blogs comes from the excellent 1990 book by Alma Gilbert: The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin,

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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