Maxfield Parrish:

The Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Murals

May 3–September 13, 2009

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Mural, East Wall Reception Room A, 1912-1916, (Panel 2A), Oil on canvas, 78 x 82 x 2 ½ inches. Lent by Torch Energy Advisors, Houston

In 1912, the doyenne of the art world Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney––an accomplished sculptor in her own right and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art––commissioned Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966), to paint seven large-scale paintings as murals for her Long Island studio in Old Westbury, New York. The four paintings shown here are part of these murals.

Prior to the Whitney murals executed between 1914 and 1918, Parrish had already completed more than a half-dozen monumental works for the industrial and commercial elites of the nation, such as the 8 x 30-foot Old King Cole (1905) for John Jacob Astor’s Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, the 7 x16-foot The Pied Piper (1909) for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the 6 x 14-foot Sing a Song for Sixpence (1910) for the Sherman House also in Chicago, and what he called “acres of canvas” known as the Florentine Fete murals (1911–1916) consisting of 18 panels totaling more than 100 feet for the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia. Including these projects, Parrish executed a total of 34 large-scale paintings for the nine major mural commissions he accepted in his lifetime. 

Parrish completed the four oil paintings of the Whitney murals, each measuring 5 ft 6 in. by 8 ft 6 in., intended for the east and south walls of the reception room of the Long Island studio in 1914. They were simply named after their locations: the Whitney East Wall Panels and the Whitney South Wall Panels. These panels are the paintings in this exhibition. The additional two paintings of the same dimensions comprising the West Wall Panels werecompleted in 1916. They were stolen in 2002 from an art gallery in West Hollywood, Calif., where these paintings now owned by the Torch Energy Advisors of Houston were kept. The final oil painting, the magnificent North Wall Panel, measuring 5 ft 6 in. by 18 ft 6 in. and the longest single panel mural executed by the artist, was completed in 1918. This painting, in private collection, is on loan to the Cornish Colony Gallery & Museum.  The murals were removed from the wall in 1998, restored and shown for the first time to the public the following year at the Museum based on a decision made by the Whitney heirs in 1996.

The Whitney East Wall Panels and the Whitney South Wall Panels exhibited here depict a festive scene of young men and women dressed in Florentine costumes in front of walls decorated with large urns, an architectural feature inspired by Mrs. Whitney’s house. These paintings mark a milestone in the mass-circulation of art images in America through Parrish’s use of bold, rich tones, which challenged the lithographic capabilities of the day and inspired numerous innovations in the way art could be reproduced. The artist wrote to Mrs. Whitney early in the mural project:  “Thank you for allowing me to use colors as rich and deep as you please. I had always wanted to do so, yet was never allowed because of the color capabilities of our lithographers today. Now that I have done it, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”

Maxfield Parrish: The Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Murals was organized by the Tyler Museum of Art.

Collectors’ Circle sponsors are Betty and Dick Summers.
Corporate Member Sponsor is The Genecov Group.

The TMA is supported by its members, Tyler Junior College,
and the City of Tyler.

Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966)

Maxfield Parrish was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family in 1870. As one of America’s best-known artists, his illustrations of children’s books and magazines made him a household name in America in the early twentieth century. His father, Stephen Parrish, who was an accomplished etcher and landscape artist, was his son’s first and possibly the foremost mentor.

Young Parrish studied abroad in France and England, and state-side attended Haverford College, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Drexel Institute, where one of his teachers was illustrator Howard Pyle, who was later to become a major influence in his work. Parrish was also influenced by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852­–1911) and admired artist members of the N.C. Wyeth family. In 1895, he married his former art teacher at Drexel Institute and fellow artist, Lydia Austin (1872–1953). Around this time, his commission work creating illustrations for magazine covers started, which allowed the couple to move to the Cornish area where his father had already taken residence to become a member of the Cornish Art colony.

Parrish received numerous commissions from popular magazines in the 1910s and 1920s including Hearst's, Colliers, and Life. He was also a favorite of advertisers, including Wanamaker's, Edison-Mazda Lamps, Fisk Tires, Colgate and Oneida Cutlery. Some of the notable book illustration commissions include: L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose (1897), Eugene Field's Poems of Childhood (1904), Arabian Nights (1909), A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales (1910), The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics (1911) and The Knave of Hearts (1925).

In the 1920s, Parrish turned away from illustration and concentrated on painting for its own sake. Androgynous, but female, nudes in Arcadian fantasy settings were a recurring theme. He pursued the subject matter for several years, living comfortably off the royalties brought in by the production of posters and calendars featuring his works. He also executed 9 mural commissions in his lifetime producing some of the most memorable, and spectacular, images outside illustrations––one of which is still in situ at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs––and moved on to landscape paintings in the 1930s, declaring that he’s done with images of “girls on rocks.”

During the height of his popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, he was the most reproduced American artist of his era. Popularized through magazine covers, book illustrations, calendar pads, advertisements, and color reproductions, Parrish’s images had a ubiquitous presence in popular visual culture. Taking advantage of the refinements of color processing that allowed for meticulously detailed and brilliantly colored mass reproductions, the works Parrish created for lithographic prints would become some of this most popular and enduring images. One of these images, the 1922 oil painting, Daybreak, became the most reproduced work in the history of American art. In 1925, it was estimated that one out of every five American homes had a Maxfield Parrish print on the wall.

Parrish painted until he was 91 years old and passed away in 1966 at age 95 at his home “The Oaks” in Plainfield, New Hampshire.