Maxfield Parrish and Photography

Maxfield Parrish

If you’re a fan of Maxfield Parrish, I’m sure you’ve seen the definitive work about him by Coy Ludwig. What you won’t find in Ludwig’s excellent collection of Parrish’s art is the real story of his life and his technique.

Maxfield Parrish Jr. allowed Ludwig to publish many of his father’s magnificent paintings, but he refused to allow Ludwig to tell the whole truth about Parrish Sr.’s relationship with Sue Lewin, and he refused to allow Ludwig to reveal the degree to which Parrish Sr. used photography to create his paintings.


Last summer I took a tour of Vermont with my friend Edward, and we stopped at the Quechee Antique Mall, and I picked up a copy of Parrish and Photography by Alma Gilbert for five bucks. I looked it up on Amazon, and it turns out it’s worth almost seventy bucks.

Since this blog is about great reads for a quarter, I guess I can’t talk about it. Just kidding. You can get it in paperback for twenty bucks, or you can buy any one of Alma Gilbert’s many other books, especially The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin, which you can get for three bucks. All Gilbert’s books tell the real story, which has the ring of truth.


I toured Parrish’s estate with Alma Gilbert more than 30 years ago and got the real story, and I think the whole world, especially the art world, is deeply indebted to her for the lawsuits and vilification she endured for telling the truth.

Like many other great artists, including Vermeer and probably Rembrandt, Parrish used the principles of photography. He really had to see something to paint it. That goes for all the urns and pillars in his paintings, and the clothes and the landscapes as well.


In his famous Old King Cole mural, the steward has a giant ring of keys on his hip. I’ve seen that ring of keys. Parrish made it (he was a machinist) and photographed it to include it in the mural.

Does this diminish his stature as an artist? Not at all. This book shows all the photographs that Parrish used to create his paintings, including Daybreak, the single most reproduced piece of art in US history.

The model facing forward is Parrish’s daughter Jean, and the prone figure is Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan! That ought to win you a bar bet, if you have any imagination at all.


But what I love most is all the photographs of Sue Lewin, Parrish’s model and mistress for more than half a century. In The Lamplighters, every single model is Sue Lewin. It’s a picture of Parrish’s ideal universe.

Sue Lewin first posed for Maxfield Parrish in 1905 in the Land of Make Believe. In 1960, when she was seventy and he was ninety, she left him to marry her childhood sweetheart. For some people, that’s a beautiful story.


But more beautiful still is the story of their life in the Cornish Colony, in the company of artists like Augustus St. Gaudens, and their explorations of all the fairy tale people that Parrish depicted in his art.


The book includes photographs of Parrish mugging for all kinds of illustrations, including the Pied Piper of Hamlin, the subject of one of his most famous murals.

There’s even one where we see Parrish posing nude with a string to click the shutter. I guess nobody else was around.