Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Parrish: Italian Villas

My colleague Michael Clapper gave a fantastic talk, "Maxfield Parrish's Constructed Fantasyland" on April 22 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Michael's talk is part of a larger study on the relationship between high and popular art in American culture. To understand the broader conceptual framework, see Michael's related case-studies, Michael Clapper, “Imagining the Ordinary: John Rogers’ Anticlassical Genre Sculptures as Purposely Popular Art,” Winterthur Portfolio 43 (2009), pp. 1-39, and "Making Sense of Thomas Kinkaid," Middlebury College Museum of Art (2009).

The lecture was hosted by the PMA's Center for American Art. The discussion that followed was so intense that it made me envious of the intelligence of Americanist art history as a discipline both esoteric and popular.

One of the directions towards which the discussion steered had to do with domestic architecture. Kathleen Foster (Curator of American Arts, PMA) described the material culture that would comprise the domestic interiors where Parrish's artwork would have been displayed.

The talk over domestic architecture reminded me of the Parrish drawing that I first saw at the New Britain Museum of American Art. In 1904, Parrish illustrated a book by Edith Wharton on Italian Villas and Their Gardens, a project sponsored by Century magazine (see here).

Browsing through Franklin & Marshall's Special Collections, I was thrilled to see that our library had a copy. I stopped by this week and read excerpts. The Wharton-Parrish collaboration is one of the best evidence of the magic lure of Italian domestic architecture exercised upon Americans in the late-19th and early-20th century. The operative word is not simply "like" but "enchantment." The interplay between landscape and architecture that creates this domestic magic was central to Parrish's art. To witness the magic in person, visit Parrish's mural "Dream Garden" in the east foyer of the Curtis Publishing Company Building. The mural was made by Tiffany Studios in 1916. Some of the individuals involved in saving this masterpiece from leaving Philadelphia were among the audience in Michael's talk.

To give the reader a flavor of Italian enchantment in the early American mind, I quote directly from Edith Wharton:

"The traveler returning from Italy, with his eyes and imagination full of the ineffable Italian garden magic, knows vaguely that the enchantment exists; that he has been under its spell, and that it is more potent, more enduring, more intoxicating to every sense than the most elaborate and glowing effects of modern horticulture; but he may not have found the key to the mystery. Is it because the sky is bluer, because the vegetation is more luxuriant? Our midsummer skies are almost as deep, our foliage is as rich and perhaps more varied; there are, indeed, not a few resemblances between the North American summer climate and that of Italy in spring and autumn." (p. 6)

"... and in the blending of different elements, the subtle transition from the fixed and formal lines of art to the shifting and irregular lines of nature." (p. 7)

"The cult of the Italian garden has spread from England to America, and there is a general feeling that by placing a marble bench here and a sun-dial there, Italian “effects” may be achieved." (p. 12)

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States