Born in Philadelphia in 1870, Maxfield Parrish was the son of a painter and grew up in a Quaker society. His family took Parrish to Europe at 14 to expose him to art and architecture, and to nurture his already blossoming talent; Parrish studied briefly in Paris before his return to Pennsylvania in 1886. He studied first at Haverford College, and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1892 to 1895, under the tutelage of Robert Vonnoh. Parrish’s artistic career produced close to 900 works of art, including magazine covers and book illustrations. His style is often characterized by its vibrant use of color. A particularly brilliant shade of cobalt blue marking most of his extravagant landscapes has become virtually synonymous with his name.
Perhaps his least well-known work is a mural installation open to the public, here in Philadelphia. Located in the historic Curtis Center, at 6th and Walnut Streets, the mural was originally commissioned by Cyrus Curtis, publisher of The Saturday Evening Post, for the lobby of the building bearing his name. Slated to be an impressive 15 by 49 feet, the mural was intended by Curtis to “make art accessible to a wide public.” He commissioned three previous artists to paint the mural, all of whom died, leaving the publishing magnate to select Parrish to complete the task. Conceived by Parrish in 1914 and constructed by Tiffany Studios, the favrile glass mosaic is titled “The Dream Garden,” and is now a part of PAFAs collection. It is the only time that Parrish and artist Louis Comfort Tiffany ever collaborated.
Comprised of over 100,000 pieces set into two dozen panels, the mosaic was created by 30 artisans at Tiffany Studios in New York, and is one of just three such mosaics the company has ever created (and by far the largest). Parrish was inspired by the gardens he had designed and planted at his summer home in New Hampshire, and wanted a “fantastical” mural, full of beauty and solitude. “The Dream Garden” employs more than 260 colors, and combines classic foliage and floral elements with architectural details such as urns and fountains. Production took over a year, and installation took an additional six months. At its unveiling, the finished mural was proclaimed a “veritable wonder-piece,” a stunning mélange of opaque and translucent glass, lit from behind.
In 1998, a scandal threatened to disrupt the garden, and, indeed, Philadelphia’s extensive public art collection as a whole. Due to legal complications regarding the estate of the mural’s previous owner, a Las Vegas casino mogul proposed a bid to purchase the piece and have it removed from the Curtis Center. Pew Charitable Trusts, along with PAFA and the University of Pennsylvania, raised more than $3.5 million dollars to keep the mural in its rightful place in Philadelphia. Final ownership was transferred to the Academy, keeping the mural accessible to the public, and preserving the historically significant landmark.