CURVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (24)

By: Ingrid Schorr
September 9, 2023

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of reconsidered passions, reassessed hates, and reversed feelings everywhere in-between. Series edited by Adam McGovern.

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MAX AND SUE

Picasso said there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats. For 55 years, the American artist Maxfield Parrish managed to keep one woman in both roles.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Parrish was one of the most celebrated illustrators and muralists in America. Happily detached from modernist debates about meaning, and largely ignored by art critics, Parrish mass-marketed a calm, dreamy fantasy world populated by androgynous figures in gauzy tunics, ankle booties, jaunty cloth hats, and velvet skirts puddled on the floor. Their soft, prepubescent bodies perched on rocks and reclined under trees, always beneath a deep, intense blue sky.

Equal parts mischievous and sensual, these figures populated panoramic murals, decorated candy boxes, and appeared in ads, calendars, magazines and children’s books. About 99% of them were modeled after a local New Hampshire woman, Susan Lewin. The first painting Lewin posed for was The Land of Make-Believe (1905). She was 16. The painting sold at auction for $3.5 million in 2014.

The teenage Sue had been hired by Parrish and his wife Lydia to care for their children. She would end up living with Parrish until she was 71. Most art historians describe her as an “assistant, model, housekeeper, and friend”; she posed for most of his popular works, often appearing in a single mural as dozens of figures of different ages and genders.

In 1925, one out of four American homes displayed a reproduction of a Parrish painting. Late boomers and early Gen Xers by the millions hung his posters in their dorm rooms.

Not me. I was more of a Renoir girl at first, and then ditched The Boating Party for xeroxed band flyers.

But on a trip to northern California in the early 1990s, I happened upon a gallery exhibition about Parrish organized by Alma Gilbert, one of the few writers to pay attention to Sue Lewin. She displayed the photographs Parrish took of Lewin, and I learned that Sue created her own costumes (the tunics, the boots), playing the characters that he painstakingly doubled and tripled and quadrupled into his finished paintings.

Clever, I thought. He was kind of xeroxing. I was captivated by Parrish’s ability to transform Sue into an exotic boy from the mysterious Far East, into fairies and lantern bearers and nymphs, all with the same body. I also learned that Lewin lived with Parrish in his 15-room art studio.

But hold on. The art studio was 40 feet from his house. Where his wife and children lived. Parrish and Lewin moved there in 1911, six years after she was hired as a domestic servant. What exactly was going on?

It’s not hard to figure out. Sue was making Parrish’s life extremely easy. She cooked, she cleaned, she sewed costumes, she posed for his source photographs. For most of 55 YEARS.

Susan Lewin is absent from biographies of Parrish, and made herself invisible to most reporters who came to the studio. “I’ll have you know that Mr. Parrish has never seen my bare knee,” she told one. (In truth, she posed for nude figures including the calendar portrait “Primitive Man.”)

By the end of the 1920s, she was over 40 years old, and not long after, Parrish declared he was done painting “girls on rocks” and took up landscape painting. Sue stayed on, shooing curious reporters and “concerned” neighbors away from the studio and continuing her unpaid labor as studio assistant, cook, and general helpmeet.

After Lydia Parrish died in 1953, Sue remained with Parrish for seven years, until she married a high-school boyfriend, Earl Colby. She was 71 years old. A few months later, Parrish rewrote his will, leaving Susan Lewin $3,000. The paintings still entrance me, but the story does not.

Parrish is mostly remembered today for those vibrant, distinctive blue skies. He called it “a blue from a dreamland, a blue from which all the skies of the world were made. …The more you look, the more unreal it grows.”

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CURVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Adam McGovern | Tom Nealon on PIZZA PURISM | Holly Interlandi on BOY BANDS | Heather Quinlan on THE ’86 METS | Whitney Matheson on THE SMITHS | Bishakh Som on SUMMER | Jeff Lewonczyk on WHOLE BELLY CLAMS | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER | Nikhil Singh on LOVE ISLAND UK | Adrienne Crew on CILANTRO | Adam McGovern on MISSING PERSONS | Art Wallace on UFOs | Fran Pado on LIVERWURST | Lynn Peril on ELTON JOHN’S GREATEST HITS | Marlon Stern Lopez on ADOLESCENT REBELLION | Juan Gonzalez on STAN & JACK or JACK & STAN | Christopher-Rashee Stevenson on BALTIMORE | Josh Glenn on FOOTLOOSE | Annie Nocenti on SIDEVIEW MIRROR | Mandy Keifetz on BREATHLESS | Brian Berger on HARRY CREWS | Ronald Wimberly on GAMING AND DATING | Michele Carlo on HERITAGE FOODS | Gabriela Pedranti on MADONNA | Ingrid Schorr on MAXFIELD PARRISH AND SUE LEWIN | Mariane Cara on ORANGE.

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Enthusiasms