Saturday, June 24, 2006


This is the first in series of posts discussing the strange doings at the cross section of art and love.

Maxfield Parrish was 33, a successful illustrator living on a grand country estate in New Hampshire when he first met Sue Lewin. She was a 16 year old girl from a neighboring farm town.  Parrish and his wife Lydia hired Sue to help care for their two young children.  

When Parrish started his career, his wife used to pose for his enchanted fairy tale paintings but eventually she became bored with the process.  She told Parrish she would no longer pose for him, so he drafted their young nanny to serve as his model.

Parrish's photo of Sue Lewin in a princess costume

Parrish's painting from the photo above

Gradually Lewin became his muse, modeling for some of his most famous illustrations.

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

The villagers from the tiny farm town were scandalized by this living arrangement.  They sent a delegation out to the estate to confront Parrish. But Parrish and Lewin indignantly insisted that their relationship was purely Platonic. 

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 his nude photographs of Lewin.

Lewin was Parrish's constant companion for the next 55 years. He and Lewin must've had a magical life together making art in their country paradise. When Parrish was 90 years old and Lewin was 71, Parrish's wife finally died, leaving him free to marry Lewin. However, Parrish wasn't sure he was ready for marriage.   Lewin packed her bags, left the estate and went back to her village where she married an old boyfriend. 

It's difficult to fathom why Parrish could not commit to Lewin after all they'd 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 he wasn't big enough to make a commitment to reality.  He died alone a few years later.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Don't feel bad that you've never heard of Ervine Metzl. No one else has either.

In the 1920s, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company employed a small staff of artists to create subway posters to encourage ridership. The audience was mostly harried commuters who were fighting their way through crowded stations coated with soot and grit. Most of the posters were predictably mediocre. But one of the artists, Ervine Metzl, sat at his board and created timeless designs that transcended the narrow limitations of his forum and his assignment.

Metzl later found work illustrating for Fortune Magazine. He wrote a book which no one reads anymore about illustrating posters. Then he trundled off to oblivion. But while he was working on art like this, he connected with something far larger and more permanent than himself. No matter how little he got paid, and no matter how little he is remembered today, there is something perfectly True about these wonderful designs. This process may be the best shot any of us has to, in the wonderful words of Arthur Koestler, "catch a glimpse of eternity through the window of time."

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Australian war illustrator Ivor Hele painted jungle fighting in New Guinea during World War II. One day, three men in his unit were killed. Their bodies were left sprawled in the mud while the remaining troops scrambled to dig foxholes. Hele, who felt the tragedy must be recorded, crouched by the bodies to draw them. The soldiers watched him in grim silence.

Then it began to rain.

Without a word, several soldiers left the safety of their foxholes to build a makeshift shelter over Hele with sticks and a tarp so he could finish the precious drawing. These soldiers, who were in the midst of battling for their own lives, felt that Hele's drawing of their fallen comrades was so important that it was worth the risk. Hele later recalled their gesture as "my most moving event in New Guinea."

I would guess these soldiers did not have highly refined taste in art. They would probably flunk a quiz on the difference between modernism and postmodernism. Yet, Hele's experience shows how important and meaningful art can be to human life.

Art used to matter a lot. It is sometimes hard to remember art's original honesty and purpose over the din of today's petty rivalries and internecine squabbling between patrons, collectors, critics and artists.

Art first appeared with the Cromagnons who were barely surviving in the midst of an ice age. They had no spare time for cultural luxuries. Yet, to make their paintings, these prehistoric artists would crawl and climb as far as a mile into dark caves carrying charcoal and the red earth which they used for color. The only light came from flickering grease lamps and pine torches which didn't cast enough light to detect the bears and other dangerous animals living in the caves. It was a very risky occupation to be a cave painter, yet something compelled them to do it anyway.

Art of this vitality and relevance seems pretty remote from most art today.


Saturday, June 03, 2006


Sometimes it takes the greatest amount of self-discipline to capture the things that are most free and elusive. You might think that painting water-- that most fluid, shimmering substance-- would permit an illustrator to indulge in the wildest excesses. But I was surprised to discover that some of the painters who are best at capturing the freedom of water can only do so using the most exacting self-discipline and control. (There's probably a metaphor for life in there somewhere.)

Stanley Meltzoff, whose spectacular paintings are featured in this and my previous post, described to me a similar process for painting water:

So far as I can tell depicting water depends on following the complex rules of illumination, refraction, reflection, color absorption, distortions of all these by the shape of the waves and the color of the bottom and supended particles, all in perspective. There are now computer dependent rules for depicting water in different wave shapes and lighting used by animators in making special effects. The instructions in computer language are beyond my understanding, but available. The How To books in art stores have simpler sets of instructions for painting water which, even if incomplete, are illuminating. So are the comments of John Ruskin in Stones of Venice, and even Gombrich in Art and Illusion. Current water painters do better analysing photographs and reconstructing the fluids in accord with the rules for making illusion, once they have spent some time looking at that particular structure of fluids in motion. I suppose mystics can do this by prayer or meditation, but the picture makers I am acquainted with are practical craftsmen, among whom there are some who can tell a story better than others. I suppose Moses could make water flow from a rock, but Meltzoff needs to use paint on gesso panels to create the illusion of water and wetness for others to contemplate.

Meltzoff went on to talk about the differences between capturing the world above water and the world underwater:

Let me say that painting underwater light and space involve more and other optical rules than water seen from above. The source of light is from above through the water surface. It is as if the waves seen from above were emiting light from beneath . The undersurface reflects in more complex ways than the surface above. Moreover the light is not in a continuous flow as in daylight, but is in distinct bands of focused light surrounded by large volumes of diminished and unfocussed light, in motion and overlapping. Atmospheric perspective and color absorption are more varied and affect varying wave lengths according to the optical processes and physics of water rather than those in air. The movement of bands of light underwater is quite unlike anything above water. With the exception of the undersurface and the bottom when visible, the rules of vanishing point perspective in air are useless underwater, except for single objects. It is not at all like painting en plein air. The same is true for the effect of gravity on vertical and horizontal structures which is so marked above water and clearly seen in vanishing point perspective.

Reflecting on Meltzoff's approach, I was struck by how hard he works to convey an evanescent, shimmering freedom and how successful he is at doing so. It shows how much you can achieve at the intersection where freedom and control come together.