Griselda by Maxfield Parrish
One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in the art world are the paintings of Maxfield Parrish. That’s why this post needs to be about his work instead of mine. He made his mark painting ads for tire companies and on the ends of orange crates. The secret to his melancholy beauty is the cobalt blue underpainting he always did. Of course, the dominant color over all is a ghostly, iridescent blue. It fills his paintings with quiet grace and powerful emotions. I love that laughing blue quality more than any other thing I’ve ever seen in the realm of art.
I love to use the term “laughing blue”. It’s an oxymoron that sums up me better than any other descriptive phrase. It is the laughter that goes on so long and so hard that it causes tears, and at the same time it is the sobbing that eventually becomes uncontrollable laughter. Sweet-sad feelings of love and longing, piles of smiles that stretch for miles. Nothing is better or wiser or more filled with life.
There was the time when the church youth group put on the Halloween Carnival. I had won a blue, helium-filled balloon at the ball toss when beautiful Alicia was watching. She smiled at me. It was such a perfect moment that I had to savor it the best I could. I gave my friend six tickets to put me in jail. It was two tickets to get in. Someone had to pay four tickets to get you out. Tickets were a nickel each. I figured my friend would leave me in there for a while so I could just sit and contemplate that balloon. I was right. Mark spent the four tickets at the cake walk. He won a cake.
In the jail was a little boy, the son of the local barber, who had a bright red balloon. His mother had put him in the jail as a joke. He was four years old, I believe, about the same as my little brother David. His name was Tommy. Some laughing-jackal teenage boys came past the jail. One of the doody-heads had a safety pin. Bang! The red balloon was no more. The high school doody-heads took off cackling with glee. Tommy burst out in tears for his lost balloon. His mother, outside the chicken-wire cage, was beside herself, pleading for the gatekeeper to open up and let her boy out. Several church ladies zoomed in to see what they could do. My mother was one of them. Before they could get into the cage, however, I solved the problem by giving him my blue balloon. His mother never saw, never realized he had been upset by the loss of his balloon. She didn’t notice that the balloon he was holding when he left the cage was different than the one he took in. It didn’t matter. No one needed to know the sacrifice I made that night.
Later, at home, I cried. Yes, I know I was twelve years old and too big to cry about a lost balloon. But it wasn’t really that anyway. It was that feeling that filled me up. It was gladness that I had seized the moment to be unselfish and kind though somehow no one else knew it. It was sorrow over the loss of my connection to that moment when she smiled at me. It was beauty caused by ugliness. It was Laughing Blue.
The innocent sylph bends down to wake her sister, the sleeping nymph. The morning has broken on a new day. The painting has existed since the 1920’s, probably his most famous work of all. He worked from a photograph to paint it. Several photographs, in fact. Wouldn’t the authorities be upset now, this man painting a naked girl? Artist or no, it could look like pornography to many in this day and age. Ironically, though, the nude person in the photo he used as a model was himself. It was only a matter of the play of light over the bare form. It was a matter of innocent yet sensual beauty. It was a matter of Maxfield Parrish Blue. The painting itself is far more subtly blue than it appears here. It is laughing blue. It is a mix of youth and grief, the birth of the new dawn and the ancient jagged hills behind. It is flowers and parched rock, waking and dreaming. The art of it is in the opposition of things, what Confucius meant when he taught of the Yin and the Yang, what Lao Tzu spoke of in the Book of the Tao. Yes, it was Laughing Blue.
I wish I had the talent to paint like Maxfield Parrish. I loved his magazine illustrations and his faery-tale characters. I loved everything of his I have ever seen, and I have dug up a lot. He was a prolific artist. Almost everything he painted is from before I was born. He died not long after I came into this world. I am sad that he can paint no more for me, yet I can’t imagine anything he could do that is better than what I’ve already seen.
In the book The Little Prince the fox says, “It is only by the heart that we can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” How true that is! We cannot describe in words the beauty we see in these works of art. We cannot explain why it is there. But we know it when we see it. It is Laughing Blue.