Maxfield Parrish - 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, July 2, 2020 | Phillips

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  • In Short



    An indisputable icon of American art, Maxfield Parrish is celebrated as one of the most influential painters of the 20th century due to his impact on, and formal association with, Surrealism and post-modernism. Presaging Pop Art’s interest in iconic figures and commercial culture   Maxfield Parrish portrayed Lewis Carroll’s famous character Humpty Dumpty at least twice over the course of his acclaimed career, the first depiction of which was in 1897 for Mother Goose in Prose, his first illustrated book. The subject clearly appealed to the artist, who revisited the character in the present work, which was reproduced on the cover of LIFE magazine’s Easter issue on March 17, 1921. Humpty Dumpty was acquired directly from the artist by the du Pont family, close friends of Parrish’s, and has remained in the same collection since.


    Celebrated for his distinctive style and adroitness with a variety of media, including painting, drawing, collage, etching and photography, Parrish painstakingly perfected the technique used in Humpty Dumpty. The artist’s process of layering pigments and glazes resulted in works that are both colorful and luminous, reminiscent of the surface of stained-glass. While murals such as Old King Cole at the St. Regis Hotel in New York made Parrish famous, the artist often preferred to work on a small scale: these jewel-like paintings, such as Humpty Dumpty, have fascinated Surrealists, Pop masters, and contemporary artists alike—and have become ubiquitous images over the last century. Indeed, in 1936 Time magazine declared that “as far as the sale of expensive reproductions is concerned, the three most popular artists in the world are Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Maxfield Parrish.”  
        The present work illustrated on the cover of Life magazine, March 17, 1921.



  • In an Eggshell

  • A Link with Surrealism

    Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Tate Gallery, London, Artwork © 2020 Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    The dreamlike, fantastical dimension of Humpty Dumpty betrays a formal affinity with the Freudian language of Surrealism, a harmonious rapport accounting for Dorothea Tanning’s lifelong admiration for Parrish’s work. The slightly uncanny presence of his paintings, particularly Humpty Dumpty, exudes the same rejection of rationality that would preoccupy artists across the Atlantic later that decade following the publication of the Surrealist manifestos.


    [left] Rene Magritte, The Therapist, 1937. Private Collection, Artwork © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    [right] Rene Magritte, Elective Affinities, 1932. Private Collection, Artwork © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    “Said to paint like Salvador Dalí without the bad dreams,” according to Arts Magazine in 1935, Parrish produced luminescent and seemingly brushstroke-less surfaces, evocative of the wild nature of psychology and the unconscious, that are reminiscent of those of the Surrealists, and his commercial work even foreshadowed the Vogue covers that Dalí began producing in the late 1930s.


    Rene Magritte, Le Domaine D'Arnheim, 1938. Private Collection, Artwork © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  


  • Contemporary Art's "Grand Pop"

    A Rediscovery    
    Parrish’s images were ubiquitous during the period of Humpty Dumpty’s creation, and approximately one in four American households owned a Parrish print in 1925. Later the pervasiveness of Parrish’s images would appeal to Pop Art’s predilection for seriality and blurred divisions between fine art and commercial culture: his dreamscapes especially fascinated Andy Warhol, who was an avid collector of his pictures. In 1964, Lawrence Alloway—the critic and curator who coined the term “Pop Art”—curated a Parrish retrospective at Bennington College that travelled to New York’s Gallery of Modern Art, reintroducing the artist to the post-war art world and contextualizing his work as a precursor to Pop Art, which led Time to dub him “Grand-Pop.”  
        Andy Warhol, Eggs, 1982. Private Collection, Artwork © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    “Behind a screen of high technique, Parrish is master of the cliché, of the image of the moment. And, because of his exceptional talent, operating so lavishly in a complex historical moment, his art poses connections between high and low, fine and mass art with which, in fact, the art theory of the 20th century has still to deal”
    — Lawrence Alloway



    Every Television in America



    After the rediscovery of Parrish’s work during the height of Pop Art’s fame, his aesthetic was further introduced to the general public in subsequent decades through advertisers’ appropriation of his imagery. Examples of this include a 1970s campaign for the Rainier Brewing Company which directly employed Parrish’s Humpty Dumptyand a Kinder Chocolate commercial from the 1980s that featured a character uncannily alike the one in the present work.
    Rainier Brewing Company advertisement, 1970s



    A Broader Reach

    Parrish’s pop culture relevance from the 1970s through the 1990s persisted, reaching the film and music sectors as well. Madonna and George Lucas both own iconic paintings by the artist, and the artist’s imagery was appropriated for album cover imagery by Elton John and Enya, among many others during the period. Michael Jackson, an avid admirer of Parrish, even emulated the artist’s Daybreak in his hit music video for “You Are Not Alone” in 1995, and the poster for the 1987 cult classic film The Princess Bride featured a Parrish-esque landscape. By the end of the century, Parrish’s aesthetic had penetrated nearly every area of American pop culture: even a major international fashion brand was named Maxfield Parrish.
        Film poster for The Princess Bride, 1987.
    Contemporary Meditations

    The blur of distinctions between high and low art that Parrish’s art embodies is still a chief theme in contemporary visual culture. While George Lucas has acknowledged that Parrish’s uncanny aesthetic directly influenced the look of the Star Wars epics, renowned artists such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Paul McCarthy produce work that explores consumerism and commercialism’s complicated relationship with art. This perennial dialogue, which Parrish was a significant contributor to, has had an incomparably profound effect on the art of the last century.  

    Jeff Koons, Popeye, 2009-2011. Private Collection, Artwork © Jeff Koons

  • America's Court Painter

    • Provenance

      The du Pont Family, Wilmington, Delaware (acquired directly from the artist circa 1925)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      LIFE, March 17, 1921, vol. 77, no. 2002 (illustrated on front cover)
      Paul W. Skeeters, Maxfield Parrish: The Early Years 1893-1930, Secaucus, 1973, p. 335 (LIFE cover illustrated)
      Coy Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, New York, 1973, p. 210

    • Artist Biography

      Maxfield Parrish

      One of the leading figures of American art, Maxfield Parrish achieved widespread acclaim for the vibrant and idealized neoclassical scenes he created for calendars, magazine covers, and other forms of commercial art that during the first half of the 20th Century. Through his work for such titles as Mother Goose in Prose, Harper’s Bazaar, LIFE, and Scribner’s Magazine, Parrish has had a considerable impact on the development of American illustration, helping establish its Golden Age, but also shaped contemporary visual culture as a whole; his painting Daybreak was the most popular art print of the 20th century. 

      Parrish’s work is marked by its use of saturated color, which Parrish achieved through a glazing process he developed while recovering from tuberculosis, and for its lifelike recreations of three-dimensional space, created using an innovative photographic technique to accurately render texture and his signature “Parrish blue.” The impact of Parrish’s work on pop culture has proven long-lasting, influencing artists across disciplines from Norman Rockwell to Elton John and Michael Jackson. 

      View More Works

Property from the du Pont Family, Wilmington, Delaware


Humpty Dumpty

signed with the artist’s initials and dated “MP 1921” lower right; further signed and dated “Maxfield Parrish. January 1921.” on the reverse
oil on board
15 1/8 x 12 in. (38.4 x 30.5 cm)
Painted in January 1921.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $740,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 2 July 2020