DescriptionMaxfield Parrish (American, 1870-1966)
A Man of Letters [The Mudball], Life Magazine cover, January 5, 1921
Oil on paperboard
14-5/8 x 11-5/8 inches (37.1 x 29.5 cm)
Initialed center right: M.P
Signed and dated on the reverse: Maxfield Parrish / September 1921
PROPERTY FROM THE SORDONI COLLECTION
Rike D. Wootten;
Vose Galleries of Boston, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts;
American Illustrators Gallery, New York;
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, "Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make Believe," May 31-September 2, 1974;
Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, "Art of American Illustration," September 11-November 21, 1976.
American Illustrators Gallery, New York, and elsewhere, "The Great American Illustrators," 1993;
Sordoni Art Gallery, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, "Selections from the Sordoni Collection: American Illustration & Comic Art," April 7-May 20, 2018.
C. Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 101, no. 68, illustrated.
Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make Believe, exhibition catalogue, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1974, pp. 32-33, illustrated;
S.E. Meyer, America's Great Illustrators, New York, 1978, p. 128, illustrated;
The Great American Illustrators, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1993, p. 58, illustrated;
S.I. Grand, Selections from the Sordoni Collection: American Illustration & Comic Art, exhibition catalogue, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 2018, pp. 50-51, 150, nos. 20, 53, illustrated.
When Maxfield Parrish painted the comical A Man of Letters [The Mudball] in 1921 for Life, he had already established himself as America's leading book and magazine illustrator. His early artwork for children's classics like L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose (1897), Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days (1900), and Eugene Field's Poems of Childhood (1904) popularized his signature atmospheric settings, cobalt blue-and-gold palette, and dreamy figures inhabiting magical worlds. Likewise, his covers for Century, Collier's, Harper's Bazaar, Ladies' Home Journal, Life, and Scribner's Magazine were highly desirous and instantly recognizable, often more stylized than his book imagery; no other journal illustrator could match Parrish's winning combination of precise draftsmanship, strong graphic design, and amusing characters.
Produced for Life in 1921, A Man of Letters recalls the distinctive design vocabulary of many of Parrish's illustrations for Collier's between 1904-10. Capitalizing on the wild popularity of his fairy-tale publications and magazine work, Collier's made him an irresistible offer: in exchange for signing an exclusive six-year contract, he would receive the staggering salary of $1250 per month and retain ownership rights of any artwork created for the magazine. Under his tenure with Collier's, Parrish introduced a number of stylistic trends, variously influenced by Art Nouveau posters, Japanese prints, and the theory of "dynamic symmetry" (ideal proportions), that would appear on his later magazine covers: flattened backdrops with few or no landscape elements; reduced palette of three or four colors; broad, uniform areas of color or patterning; juxtaposition of colors, textures, or shapes; and trompe-l'oeil puns.
For example, Parrish's January 2, 1909 cover for Collier's clearly served as a precursor to A Man of Letters (fig. 1). In both, an artist, seated on a stool or platform with his back to the picture plane (the bottoms of his shoes and red socks visible), rotates slightly toward the viewer. Each artist holds a paintbrush and paint (on a palette or in a cup) and is in the process of painting the words of the magazine cover onto a giant canvas or billboard; using trompe-l'oeil, Parrish integrates the very magazine cover into the narrative setting. Additionally, both paintings feature a handful of colors-artists in neutral brown-and-white clothing, and pale yellow backgrounds punctuated by eye-catching red or green letters. Rounded shapes, whether a palette, curved back, bowed legs, or bowler hat, carefully balance the strong verticals and horizontals throughout both compositions, while textured passages, such as a patterned shirt in Collier's or grainy shoe bottoms in Life, offset the smooth, monochromatic backdrops. In A Man of Letters, Parrish injects a dose of humor by marring the painter's pristine sign with a mudball, thrown by the offending viewer; this mudball repeats the trope of the ink splatter dominating the Collier's September 3, 1910 "penmanship" cover.
In his early Collier's illustrations, Parrish also developed memorable themes that he would return to in his 1920s magazine work. One of his most popular characters was the "seer," or man with keen visual powers, most often depicted as an artist, but also appearing as a tourist, scientist, and philosopher. Parrish's seer was recognizable by particular physical attributes: round glasses, indicating his visual and analytical acuity, and an overcoat and/or hat signifying his role as observer of the outside world (fig. 2). For instance, The Botanist (Collier's, July 18, 1908), wearing spectacles, derby, and long coat, scrutinizes a plant sample with a magnifying glass; The Farmer/Philosopher (Collier's, November 2, 1912), sporting glasses and a wide-brimmed hat, surveys his fields while smoking a pipe; and The Artist (Collier's, April 3, 1909), donning glasses, bowler hat, and short coat, turns to look at the viewer while painting a Collier's cover about advertising.
Parrish frequently dressed up as a model for his figures, and that he identified with the character of the seer is evidenced by a 1935 photograph of himself posing wide-eyed in a derby, scarf, and coat. In A Man of Letters, as in these Collier's covers, Parrish refers to himself, further underscored by the type of artist: here is a technical sign painter, who, carefully coloring in the of the letters of "LIFE," values the precision of his craft; likewise, Parrish called himself "the mechanic who loves to paint," and as the practitioner of a painstaking painting process involving multiple layers of glazes and varnishes, he, too, would have been horrified by a mudball wrecking his workmanship (L. and J. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish and the American Imagists, Edison, New Jersey, 2004, p. 34).
After his contract with Collier's expired in 1910, Parrish focused on mural commissions and did not actively return to magazine illustration until the early 1920s. Graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson, who was president of the humor magazine Life at the time, seized the opportunity and hired Parrish to create cover art, imploring: "What we want from you is just Parish's" (C. Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 98). A Man of Letters was one of the first Life covers Parrish rolled out for Gibson, and he repeated the character of the artist-seer, emphasizing the comic spin, for two later editions: A Dark Futurist (Life, March 1, 1923) captures a Parrish-like artist in foggy round glasses and a long green coat hunched over on a stool, balancing in his hands a paintbrush and a palette and staring quizzically at the viewer; A Good Mixer (Life, January 31, 1924) takes the exact same figure and turns him on profile next to an easel, reiterating his dwarfish stature and befuddled expression. Parrish actually gave a name to these covers with whimsical characters silhouetted against a plain backdrop: "odds and ends." In a note to Life's art editor, he summed up his utter delight in creating "odds and ends" like A Man of Letters: "I'll say right now that there is a lot of good fun doing these for your crowd down there that I like. I like the spirit of it, and work, I think, is the better for it" (Ludwig, p. 101).
The artwork is executed in oil and glazes on a standard illustration board appropriate or the period. The substrate is stable and in firm condition, exhibiting a minimal age-appropriate oxidization hue. Under Ultraviolet examination, a circle of restoration is evident just under the paint splotch to the right of the figure, as well as a few small re-touch areas between the his legs. The letters forming the title "LIFE," appears to have been strengthened at some point. The work is initialed in the center, and also on the verso of the board. The painting is in overall very good condition.
Framed Dimensions 19.5 X 16.75 Inches
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