Where Have You Gone Maxfield Parrish?

by Bob Schwartz

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, Ode On A Grecian Urn

Maxfield Parrish was one of the most popular and ubiquitous American artists and illustrators of the first half of the twentieth century. For decades, his work was seen and instantly recognizable in books, magazines, and advertising. His extravagant and romantic style was inimitable, and he was honored by having his signature color—now known as Parrish Blue— named after him.

A new generation rediscovered Parrish in the 1960s, and walls of dorms and apartments were adorned with Parrish posters. Eventually the appreciation spread beyond college students, and Parish prints became more widely popular. And then, like all art trends, interest died back down. Today Parrish and his work are not so well known.

His most famous series was the calendars he illustrated for Edison Mazda light bulbs (above). General Electric named the bulbs for Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism. The religion’s central theme is the cosmic struggle between light and darkness. Parrish’s first calendar was so well-received that he continued to create it for 17 years.

A few decades ago, these luminous pictures spoke to a young generation navigating through unsettled times. Maybe it was the beauty of the pictures. Maybe it was their implicit idealism. Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was not just the promise and possibility of light, but the actuality of unseen colors that are right in front of our eyes—if we choose to see them. We could use some of that and some more Maxfield Parrish today.