Update: The Maxfield Parrish work sold for just over $2 million.
What you see: Maxfield Parrish’s A Venetian Night’s Entertainment, a 1903 oil on paper laid down on panel. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.
The expert: Tylee Abbott, Vice President and specialist in American art at Christie’s.
What characteristics mark this work as a Maxfield Parrish? What details tell you that only he could have painted it? Certainly one of the things that defines a Maxfield Parrish is luminosity. It tends to glow, regardless of subject matter. It has to do with his technique. He applied an Old Master technique where he built a white ground and added layers and layers of washes and colors, and he used intricate varnishes to achieve the luminous surface. And he’s very well-known for doing fantastical, wonderful scenes. It’s as much his subject matter as his technique.
How does his use of lanterns mark this work as distinctly his? Did he depict them often? They actually occur in a couple of different paintings. An interest of his was in luminous paintings that glowed. Obviously, lanterns lend themselves to achieving that aesthetic. Lanterns also allow for really soft points of light.
This is what I describe as a “Jenga painting”: the composition is loaded with so many elements that it should fall apart, but because it’s put together well, it holds together well. How does Parrish’s deftness with a crowded composition speak to his mastery? It is chaos, but it’s ordered chaos. It’s overflowing with figures and elements, and it was carefully designed by Maxfield Parrish. It conveys the revelry of Venice, and the party. All the figures in there are complementing each other. The gestures of their hands are expressive, and they’re all looking in different directions–across each other, at each other. It’s a bit overwhelming, but it is balanced. It starts with the architectural space at the top, and it’s balanced by the figures at the bottom. The center is illuminated by lanterns. The dark [areas] on the top and the bottom allow a more cohesive balance in the composition.
Might he have done anything differently than he normally would to work out this unusually complex composition? His technique could be very labor-intensive. He relied heavily on models for his paintings. Oftentimes, he would choose friends. He would not have had twelve people sitting in his studio. He would explore them and simulate positions.
He made this work after joining the Cornish community in Cornish, New Hampshire, which orbited around Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Is there any chance that Parrish recruited his neighbors to pose for this? And do we know who might have modeled for him for this piece? He may well have had folks prominent in the community sit for him. The communal nature of the Cornish community lends itself to painting a theatrical party scene. But we haven’t identified any of the models, unfortunately.
Parrish was commissioned to paint this to illustrate an Edith Wharton story. Could we talk about what scene he’s showing here? I take it the main character is the man in profile in Colonial-looking clothes at the left? In the story, a young man wanders the streets of Venice as a tourist, out of place. Count Rialto [at right] befriends him–‘Have a drink, I’ll show you what Venice nightlife is all about.’ Parrish has taken an austere young Massachusetts gentleman with a tricorn hat and upright posture and thrown him into a very Italian, expressive scene of frivolity.
To use a slightly dismissive phrase that Parrish coined, his most famous works feature a “girl on a rock.” This is not a girl on a rock. Does that matter? The top auction price for his most famous painting, and one of the most famous paintings in art history, is Daybreak, which shows two Neoclassical figures in a fantastical landscape. That was made in the 1920s. This was made in 1903, and this is a purposeful illustration, executing a narrative. These painted illustrations, in today’s market for American illustration, which is very strong, can be every bit as popular as the girl-on-the-rock subject matter.
What is the auction record for a Maxfield Parrish? $7.6 million, for Daybreak, sold at Christie’s in May 2006. The next-highest result is for The Lantern Bearers, sold at Christie’s in the same auction for $4.2 million.
How often does an original Maxfield Parrish come to auction? Almost every season there’s a Parrish or a couple of Parrishes on the market. What type of Parrish varies widely. How often is something as significant as this available? Once a year, or every other year.
*Architect Stanford White designed the frame. How does it enhance the painting? The frame is something that sets this painting apart from all other Parrishes. It’s a very special thing. There’s one other Parrish in a Stanford White frame known, and it’s in a private collection.
*So this is the first time one of the two has come to auction? I believe so. I think the prominence of Stanford White as a secondary artist contributes to its value. The frame furthers the architectural design where the scene takes place. The vegetative scrolls on the frame add to the fluidity of the gestures and compliments the overall motion of the painting.
What is the work like in person? The photo is fairly good in terms of a likeness, but with Maxfield Parrish, the luminous nature of the painting is important. It glows a lot more in person than in reproduction.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? The frame is really unique. Rarely are frames made by Stanford White, and rarely are frames so complementary to the work. The amount of people in the painting and the lanterns are definitely memorable. They lend a lot to the glowing nature of the composition.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
*Since taking the interview and posting the piece, Christie’s learned that the frame is not original, and thus not by Stanford White.
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