A series of paintings by American artist Maxfield Parrish went on display this month at The Bryan Museum in an exhibit including four large, colorful paintings, three smaller companion pieces and the tattered remnants of two paintings stolen in 2001 and never recovered.
Prominent art patron and socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1914 commissioned the entire set of paintings to hang in her Long Island, N.Y., studio’s reception room. Whitney was an artist and collector and later created the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan to house her collection.
Retired oilman and historic preservationist J.P. Bryan in the 1990s acquired the murals on display at The Bryan Museum, which he founded. The paintings were on loan when the July 2001 heist occurred in a West Hollywood, California, gallery. Thieves disabled security sensors and then haphazardly cut two of the valuable paintings from their frames and escaped through a hole in the roof. The paintings haven’t t been found and the FBI still considers it on its Top Ten list of International Art Crimes.
Bryan, who usually collects Western art and artifacts, said he was attracted to the Parrish murals after becoming familiar with the artist’s work when they were displayed at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado.
“I would spend time just staring at the paintings’ mystical projection of charm and space, knowing nothing of the importance of the artist,” Bryan said. “When I was offered these Parrish murals years later, I made the connection to my youthful interest and bought them with no clear idea of what to do with them.”
The murals are large — 6 feet by 5 feet — and display deep and vibrant colors. Parrish, a commercial artist and illustrator, used for the first time intense colors for this commission because he assumed they would not be reproduced as many of his earlier works had been, according to art historians. In fact, he ground up precious stones — rubies, emeralds and lapis lazuli — and mixed them with his paints to illuminate a belt or part of a subject’s costume.
“Our upcoming exhibit is the only opportunity to see all six murals together, at least in spirit, plus three long and narrow Parrish paintings, which linked the large murals together when they were originally installed,” Jordan Price, a spokesman for The Bryan Museum, said. “It is a little shocking seeing the tattered and jagged canvas remains of the two stolen paintings.”
The set of murals depict ancient Florentines gathering at an outdoor party. The cobalt-blue sky and backgrounds are jarring, the foliage and flowers are realistic and the human figures depicted are all friends or relatives of Parrish, including some self-portraits. The slender canvas remnants of the stolen works still on the wooden stretchers have some of Parrish’s original brushstrokes.
“This collection of murals is arguable the finest works Parrish ever created,” Price said, noting that Parrish’s painting “Daybreak” is perhaps the most reproduced pop culture print of the 20th century, with many record album covers, book jackets, movie posters and music videos — as well as a “Sesame Street” parody featuring Elmo — depicting a scene of mountains, a body of water, two people embracing under a pair of columns and a dreamlike background of clouds and skies.
The artist, who died in 1966, painstakingly applied layers of oil paints with varnish between each coat. Because of this method, he was able to achieve luminosity and vibrancy practiced by the Old Masters hundreds of years ago, according to art historians. Each layer was required to fully dry before additional paint or varnish could be applied. The colors are intensified because of their contrasting tones with each other but are somewhat transparent as if looking through a stacked layer of stained glass.
The exhibit will remain in the special gallery for six months. Viewing is included with admission fee to the museum, 1315 21st St. on the island.