"A Dark Futurist"   Lot no. 4139

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By Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)

14.00" x 11.125"
Oil on Paper Laid on Panel
Signed Lower Right



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Initialed lower right: M.P.
Signed on the reverse: Maxfield Parish
Initialed and numbered by the artist's son on the reverse: M.P. Jr. / No. 68.

When Maxfield Parrish painted the comical A Dark Futurist in 1923 for Life magazine, 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 CenturyCollier'sHarper's BazaarLadies' Home JournalLife, 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.

According to David Apatoff, Art Critic, The Saturday Evening Post, "Parrish abandoned his customary heavy details and rainbow colors to present a bolder, more high-contrast design silhouetted against a stark white background - a treatment more suitable for a modern magazine cover vying for attention on a crowded newsstand.

A Dark Futurist is silhouetted against a white field with no background or details to prop it up. The composition is carefully centered with only differences in the hands and the artist's necktie to break the symmetry. These are crucial to the success of the design.

Just as important as Parrish's clean, high-contrast style in these pictures is the refreshing humor and sophistication in content, which is usually absent from Parrish's fairytale paintings.

A Dark Futurist shows us a different kind of modernism. Parrish steps out of his timeless fairy tales to tweak one of the most incendiary artistic movements of his day. Futurism, with its militant manifesto and its outspoken artists, was all the rage in Europe. Parrish pokes them, showing a "dark" and anxious futurist with pursed lips and thick glasses, poised to paint but not exactly sure of, or optimistic about, what the 'future' will hold. This suggests that Parrish was alert to, and had opinions about, current events of the day - something one might never guess from his usual subject matter."

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.

A Man of Letters, sold last year at Heritage Auctions, 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 Dark Futurist: "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).


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, pp. 101, 210, no. 684, fig. 66, illustrated;
Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make Believe, exhibition catalogue, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1974, p. 23, illustrated;
S.E. Meyer, America's Great Illustrators, New York, 1978, p. 128, illustrated;
The Great American Illustrators, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1993, p. 59, illustrated;
S.I. Grand, Selections from the Sordoni Collection: American Illustration & Comic Art, exhibition catalogue, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 2018, pp. 50-51, 151, nos. 21, 54, illustrated.

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See all original artwork by Maxfield Parrish


To behold the work of American illustrator Maxfield Parrish (1870–1966) is to enter into a fantasy world of ethereal beauty. Whether a book illustration, magazine cover, painting or mural commission, his flawlessly rendered subjects and fairy-tale settings are infused with a sense of mythical beauty unmatched by any artist in his wake

A Unique Approach

The magic and sublime spirit of Parrish’s work is the result of his unique approach to painting. He began with a white base which served to illuminate the image from the first layer up through to the last. Repeated layering of varnish on the surface of the pigment heightened the vibrancy of his colors, yielding shades like the famous "Parrish blue," a rich cobalt that is now indelibly associated with the artist. This singular technique allowed Parrish to convey textures and patterns with the intense detail and saturation of color that became trademarks of his best works.

This May, a museum-quality collection of 11 works by Maxfield Parrish pay tribute to the superior talent and unique vision of this seminal artist. A leading highlight of the collection is Sing a Song of Six Pence, measuring over 13 feet long and painted as a mural for the hotel bar of the Sherman House in Chicago, Illinois. Parrish began his career painting a mural of Old King Cole for the University of Pennsylvania in 1894, and was immediately recognized for his ability to render exquisite detail on a monumental scale. He often projected photographic images and then painted directly on the surface of his murals, which may account for the veracity of the features displayed in this work.