Saturday, June 24, 2006


George Nathan once wrote, "art is the sex of the imagination."

That strikes me as a pretty dumb thing to say. However, it does serve as a useful springboard for talking about the intriguing relationship between art and love.

Maxfield Parrish was 33, a successful illustrator living on a grand country estate, when he first met Sue Lewin. She was a 16 year old girl from a nearby farm town hired to help Parrish and his wife care for their two young children. Because Parrish's wife would no longer pose for him, he drafted their young nanny to pose in fairy tale costumes.

Lewin soon became his muse, modeling for his most famous illustrations.

Eventually Parrish moved out of the mansion where his wife and children stayed and set up residence in his art studio so that he and Lewin could work closely together. Not long after that, Parrish's wife began taking their children away on extended trips.

The villagers from the tiny farm town were scandalized by this living arrangement and even sent a delegation out to the estate to confront Parrish. But Parrish and Lewin both insisted that their relationship was purely Platonic. The relationship between Parrish and Lewin is captured in an excellent book by Alma Gilbert.

To her dying day, Lewin was adamant, "I'll have you know that Mr. Parrish has never seen my bare knee." After Parrish and Lewin had passed away, construction workers at the estate found a secret compartment where Parrish had hidden the nude photographs he had taken of Lewin.

Lewin was Parrish's constant companion for 55 years. He and Lewin must have had a magical life together out in the country. When Parrish was 90 years old and Lewin was 71, Parrish's wife finally died, leaving him free to marry Lewin. However, he declined so she packed her bags, left the estate and went back to her village where she married someone else. It is difficult to fathom why Parrish could not commit to Lewin after all they had been through together. At age 90, he could hardly have been holding out for a better offer. Parrish was a brilliant painter with a rich and vivid imagination. But for some reason, he just wasn't big enough to make a commitment to reality, and he died alone a few years later.


Anonymous Brian said...

What artist or illustrator wouldn't give his eyeteeth for a model like Sue Lewin? I like the fact you didn't make any comments. If you know a bit about Maxfield Parrish's life and work, these pictures say it all.

6/24/2006 12:18 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Brian, you have an eagle eye and an excellent knowledge of illustration. Unfortunately, you also have lightning reflexes. I put up the pictures but before I could add my comments, blogger froze up. You visited my blog in the brief space between the pictures and the comments.

But you raise a good point. Most of the pictures I post can't be improved upon by words (or more particularly, my words). Every once in a while, I think about posting nothing but great pictures on selected topics. But I think Leif Peng does a wonderful job of that with his "today's inspiration" list serve.

6/25/2006 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...


I wish I were that fast, but I just happened upon the site at that time and saw the three photos. I thought you just posted the three without a writeup to see what some viewers would say. So I dropped my two cents into the bucket.

The pictures you decide to post may not be improved by words, but why shouldn't we all chat about these great works a bit anyway? I have a great fondness for a number of these golden age illustrators who were not only fabulous technicians, but great storytellers as well. I can't understand why they are not more popular today. But then visual art seems to have taken a back seat to television and movies, hasn't it? Too bad for us picture enthusiasts.

I don't understand why Parrish wouldn't marry Sue. It must have been something in his personality where he needed to always be in control, and making her his equal in some way was not on the table. He may not have wanted her to inherit his estate, either. Money seems to cloud judgement a great deal. I don't know why that would be so important at 90.

BTW, I'll probably be checking in a bit less often (but check in I will!), as I plan to cut back on my web time a lot. I've got my own pictures to do. But thanks again for a great post and your blog!

6/25/2006 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a bum! Standing on principle (eg, true to his wife by not marrying another), afraid to upset the delicate muse-arteest balance (agreeing with Brian about the power shift in marriage), or just a nacissistic jerk?
Personally, I liked his skies the best anyway. -cp

6/25/2006 8:33 PM  
Blogger Theory_of_me said...

Marriage is a sham. So what, that he didn't marry her.

6/28/2006 12:24 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Oh, my.

Well... give it a little while, you'll find someone else.

6/28/2006 11:18 AM  
Blogger Stan Shaw said...

Maybe Lewin did'nt want to wind up like his first wife.
Or perhaps she had enough of him.

6/28/2006 2:31 PM  
Blogger Theory_of_me said...

Obviously, it wasn't "true love" since they were willing to end it over something as worthless as marriage.

6/28/2006 10:37 PM  
Anonymous Penguin said...

It was a different time. Not to get far, far off subject, but applying our ideals of marriage to them is unfair and unfit.

6/29/2006 9:00 AM  
Blogger Theory_of_me said...

Marriage is still highly valued in our society.

I don't see how this is veering off-topic. The subject is "Artists in Love." Can an artist ever truly dedicate himself to another person? Wouldn't he have to choose art over mere romance? Erotic love is just raw material for the creation of art.

6/29/2006 9:42 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

I am fascinated that an artist with such perfect pitch for romantic illustration was so tone deaf when it came to real life commitment. He had boundless imagination in so many ways, yet somehow couldn't imagine himself married to Sue. I guess that's the difference between fairy tale love and real relationships.

It's not that he wasn't committed to her-- he had already given up everything-- his wife, his children, his reputation in the community-- and stayed with her for a lifetime. Why then did he choke when it came to marrying her at the end of his life? And as for Sue, after living "in sin" for 55 years, completely dependent on Parrish, where did she find the gumption to draw the line and go off to marry somebody else at the end of her life?

What a fascinating interplay of aesthetics, love and pathology.

6/29/2006 1:45 PM  
Blogger Theory_of_me said...

You seem to have different expectations of great artists than I do.

I expect them to be selfish ego-maniacs. A humble artist is a contradiction. Who wants to see humble art?

The way I see it, he got what he wanted from her. He used her to make his masterpieces. When she got old and ugly there really was no point in having her around except to avoid becoming lonely. I don't know if Parrish was productive up to the moment he died but it doesn't really matter. He was an artist first and a lover second, as it should be if you want to be extraordinary.

He obviously didn't mind dying alone. It would have been easy just to marry her if he was so afraid of that.

6/30/2006 2:24 PM  
Anonymous Bob Cosgrove said...

It might be worth mentioning that your readers who wish to read more on the topic might want to check out a book on the subject, The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin by Alma Gilbert.

7/02/2006 12:39 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

I did refer readers to Alma Gibert's excellent book (in the third paragraph from ther end) but it doesn't hurt to underscore the point. One poignant fact mentioned in Gilbert's book is that after Parrish and Lewin both died,the grand Parrish mansion burned to the ground in 1979, as if to seal the mystery of their relationship forever from prying eyes. It's the kind of story that cries out for treatment by a talent like Orson Welles. At a minimum, I would love to see someone go through the Parrish photographs and records at Dartmouth and try to shed a little more light on this fascinating story.

7/02/2006 2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can I find out more about the family line? It is rumored (in my family) that I share his bloodline and I am curious to know the truth.
Sincerely Yours, Dana Parrish

11/06/2006 11:44 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

Has there ever been any interest in producing this fascinating story as a movie?

7/21/2009 2:45 AM  
Anonymous Katie said...

so strange - i'm australian and never heard of this artist but abt eight years ago I had a dream I was on a roof and picked up an empty cd case with the words maxfield parrish on it.

So of course I looked the words up and found out he was this american illustrator no idea why i dreamt it,nut now eight years later i'm an illustrator myself.

11/22/2009 12:04 AM  
Blogger Ollanna said...

I know this is a late comment, but I am fascintated by the relationship by Lewin and Parrish. It is pointless to make a moral commentary or to say whether or not true love existed or was proved or disproved. None of us stood in either of their shoes. We don't have a clue as to what they really felt or what bound them. What is interesting is that the relationship does not fit nicely into a preset category. They took whatever feeling they had and created a new type of relationship with it. That is what makes it an artistic relationship. If each of us would do that with at least one of our relationships, i.e. make it substantially out of the ordinary mold, wouldn't that be so much more interesting?

11/25/2009 3:24 AM  
Anonymous Natalie said...

Maybe he didn't want to marry her because he knew he would die soon and leave her alone, a widow. Perhaps he wanted her to have someone to care for her after he was gone?

5/25/2010 8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lewin left Parrish and finally married her childhood sweetheart. Thereafter, Parrish never included another human figure in any of his paintings.

We all have that hunger, we're all reaching out to touch Perfection. The Artist can capture that moment for eternity; but what do the rest of us do, when Perfection slips through our fingertips and time keeps passing?

3/22/2011 12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am not surprised, and yet somehow i am taken aback...

all we have is a few details of the years lived by two; never-the-less, we feel so comfortable speculating... creating, if you will, our very own version of their lives.

i don't know what love was or was not to them. i do know what it is to me; i am thankful for Love. i also know we often fall in and out of love... it's the staying in love that seems to continue to elude the human race

4/01/2011 12:24 PM  
OpenID thehistoryoftomjones said...

You may be missing 1/3 of the picture. Parish's real wife completed the circle. With her death, the dynamic broke down and they went separate ways.

8/24/2011 12:01 AM  
Anonymous erika said...

Tom Jones I think you are nearing the mark, or at least bringing up a valid and interesting line of speculation. Too easy in this society to make assumptions about the nature of the relationship among all three, that is, that it comprises two competing two-way relationships. Not necessarily so. Although pure speculation of course. Notwithstanding the penchant for family trips, difficult to imagine the living arrangement lasting 55 years if Lydia and Sue were competitive or antagonistic. Speaking as a mother, there is little chance a woman would entrust care of her precious children to her husband's mistress. Through my own life lens (and more modern notions of love and relationships) it's difficult to imagine there not being a loving relationship between the women. As some supporting evidence, Parrish expresses love between women in a very beautiful and natural way...Daybreak, e.g.

11/16/2011 2:56 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Wow, this is a long conversation. I have a muse of nearly 40 years; I married her 37 years ago at age 20(I have been painting about that long as well). further, I have loved Parrish's work for about that same length of time. I can tell you that marriage is beautiful and sacred and to disparage it is folly. I can also tell you that there is little relationship between the beauty of a person's work and their individual character. As one who places a supreme value on fidelity, I have to say that for all of the beauty of Mr. Parrish 's work, he falls into the same category as professional athlete thugs who lead sordid private lives but astound us with their skills on the field of play.

12/05/2011 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one who has admired mr parrish's work for many years, but as one who has also had a muse I married 37 years ago, I have to say that mr Parrish is in the same camp as those thug athletes whose skills we admire on the field of play but whose charcter has no relationship their professional prowess.

12/05/2011 11:11 AM  
Blogger Skipperose said...

Of course I'm fascinated by every aspect of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin's extraordinary life. And yet, it is the art that calls to me in a whisper ... of a time and place which seems so familiar and intimate to me. Thank you for this blog!

2/16/2012 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found out that Susan Lewin was a relative of mine. My grandmother's maiden name is Lewin. My cousin had done a geneology chart and found our connection to Susan... I am sorry I never had the chance to meet her.

10/20/2013 12:13 AM  
Anonymous Joel Spector said...

I had visited "The Oaks" in 1979 and the home had just burnt down. I met Alma Gilbert and from what she said to me was that MP considered her to be in a lower social level and could not bring himself to marry her. He still had deep sited feelings for that sort of social strata.
I guess Sue was OK to have a private affair with and to use her as a muse, but to have her as an equal in social circles is something he could never do.

3/02/2014 12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MP's one true love he met in 1936 Nancy Roelker..Its possible before that he may have had feelings for Susan Lewin. I always wondered if instead of the social status of Susan Lewin it could have been his upbringing religion that prevented him from divorcing his wife and marrying Sue Lewin? He was crazy in love with Nancy Roelker and yet did not divorce his wife either. Nancy was his social/intellectual equal but they didnt marry either therefore I have an issue with the social status/intellect being the reason he didnt marry either of these women. He stood by his wife during her cancer and cancer surgery maybe he didnt want to divorce and remarry? We may never know for sure but sometimes its just as simple as not wanting to do something. He remained friends with Susan Lewin even after her marriage, he left her a small amount of money in his will..Maybe after Sue learned of Nancy she knew he would never want to marry her?? Alma Gilbert has written the book about MP and NR its a book that contains a great deal of correspondence between MP and NR although it only contains the letters MP wrote to NR. Nancy saved them he didnt save the replies from her, he was probably afraid someone would discover his affair.

4/20/2015 6:45 PM  

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