Major Works by Parrish Highlight Christie’s Sale

May 4, 2010 Updated: May 4, 2010

This neo-classical image has become the most reproduced image in the history of modern American art. The Parrish original is to be sold at Christie's May 20. (Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2010)
This neo-classical image has become the most reproduced image in the history of modern American art. The Parrish original is to be sold at Christie's May 20. (Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2010)
NEW YORK—As a highlight of its Important American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture auction on May 20 in New York, Christie’s will offer the most significant collection of paintings and illustrations by the acclaimed American artist Maxfield Parrish ever to be offered at auction.

Major works from all periods of Parrish’s long career as an illustrator and painter are represented within the group, including “Daybreak,” Parrish’s most celebrated painting.

The complete collection of 12 paintings and illustrations is estimated to exceed $15 million.

Daybreak, 1922

Painted in 1922, this captivating work of art has become one of the most reproduced images in the canon of modern American art. At the time it was painted, Parrish had already established himself as a sought-after illustrator working for publications such as Life, Scribner’s, Harper’s Weekly, and Collier’s. In 1920, the art publishing firm House of Art engaged Parrish to create a work intended specifically for reproduction as a print, rather than for a magazine, book, or advertisement. The result was “Daybreak,” a composition of brilliant luminosity that is widely regarded as Parrish’s greatest masterwork. It is now worth an estimated $4-7 million.

A neo-classical image of romance and mysterious beauty, the scene has inspired scores of re-interpretations and homages in the form of album covers, movie posters, and even a scene in a Michael Jackson music video.

The painting last sold at Christie’s in May 2006 for $7.6 million, the most ever paid for a work by the artist.

Parrish had a unique and intricate approach to painting; the result seen in “Daybreak” has been very difficult for artists to recreate. He felt strongly about the purity of color and the resulting effect it made on the picture as a whole. Composing the scene required the introduction of paper cut-outs, photography, and an assortment of props and models that Parrish constructed in his workshop.

He began the painting with a base layer of white to illuminate the image, and over this he built up layer upon layer of varnish, which heightened the vibrancy of the colors and created the painting’s smooth, enamel-like surface. This innovative technique allowed Parrish to convey surface textures and patterns with the intense detail and saturation of color that became a signature of his most celebrated paintings.

Early Career Works

Additional works in the collection include a number of Parrish’s early paintings and illustrations, from a period when he was beginning to establish the lucrative contracts and commissions that would yield some of his most enduring images.

A highlight from this time period is “Sing a Song of Six Pence” (estimated value: $2.5-3.5 million), a 1910 mural created specifically for the hotel bar of the Sherman House in Chicago, Illinois. Massive in scale, the multi-panel scene measures 5 feet, 8 inches by 13 feet, 9 inches. For his murals, Parrish often used the technique of projecting photographic images and then painting directly on the surface on a large board, a time-intensive process that ensured the veracity of his figures’ features and gestures.

Another early career highlight is the ethereal “Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” (estimated value: $1.5-2.5 million), a widely-reproduced romantic scene that was originally executed as the cover for Hearst’s Magazine’s November 1912 issue. Painted in brilliant hues of pink, purple and Parrish’s signature blue, the work depicts the sleeping princess in a lush evening landscape attended by two dozing female companions. Parrish’s command of perspective and composition skillfully leads the viewer’s eye through the narrative.

Sheltering Oaks, 1956, demonstrates his interest in the beauty of landscapes later in his career (Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2010)
Sheltering Oaks, 1956, demonstrates his interest in the beauty of landscapes later in his career (Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2010)

Landscapes

Among the late career works in the collection is “Sheltering Oaks,” an example of Parrish’s skill at landscape painting, a genre he turned to relatively late in his career, at the age of 61. Although he had experimented with landscape painting throughout the preceding years, by 1930 Parrish had abandoned his earlier pre-Raphaelite compositions and turned exclusively to nature as his subject.

“Sheltering Oaks” (estimated value: $600,000-800,000) was originally published in a 1960 calendar for The Mutual Insurance Company of Frederick County, Maryland. Painted in rich autumnal colors, Sheltering Oaks carries forward the artist’s signature use of the saturated cobalt blue hue that came to be called “Parrish blue.”

Additional works in the collection include a diptych titled “My Duty Towards My Neighbor and My Duty Towards God,” “The Reservoir at Villa Falconieri, Frascati,” “The Reading of the Declaration,” and “Two Cooks Peeling Potatoes.”

A complete e-catalogue of this collection and sale will be available online at www.christies.com