PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
The illustrations Parrish executed for The Knave of Hearts are today widely considered his finest achievement in this genre. Originally a play written by Louise Saunders, the wife of Scribner’s magazine editor Maxwell Evarts Perkins, The Knave of Hearts is an adaptation of the beloved Mother Goose nursery rhyme The Queen of Hearts, a stanza of which reads:
The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer's day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole those tarts,
And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts
Called for the tarts,
And beat the knave full sore;
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he'd steal no more.
In her adaptation, Saunders expands the role of the Knave to make him a central, heroic character in the story. Her version offers an explanation of why the Knave stole the tarts: he was helping the potential future queen Lady Violetta, who could only marry the King of Hearts if she proved herself accomplished in the domestic arts. The Knave substituted the perfect tarts baked by his wife for the inedible ones attempted by Violetta.
Parrish knew Saunders socially, as they spent summers together in Cornish, New Hampshire with their families, but his attraction to this tale as subject matter transcended his friendship with the author. Parrish later recalled, “The reason I wanted to illustrate The Knave of Hearts was on the account of the bully opportunity it gives for a very good time making the pictures. Imagination could run riot, bound down by no period, just good fun and all sorts of things” (Sylvia Yount, Maxfield Parrish 1870-1966, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1999, pp. 86-88).
Indeed, it was Parrish himself who encouraged Saunders' husband to publish the play as a children's book and suggested that he provide the accompanying illustrations. The artist’s great enthusiasm for the project is reflected in the 26 illustrations he ultimately rendered over the course of three years. He went so far as to build an intricate model of a castle in his studio so he could more accurately depict its likeness in many of the series' illustrations. The Six Little Ingredients presents a moment at the beginning of Saunders’ tale, during Lady Violetta’s first attempt to bake tarts for the king. Each of the boys holds a jar labeled butter, salt, flour, pepper, cinnamon or milk, allowing for Violetta to take her choice of ingredients as she bakes.
Displaying an extraordinary attention to detail, The Six Little Ingredients not only demonstrates Parrish’s unique style and vivid imagination but also confirms his sophisticated understanding of light, color and compositional design. The work achieves an impressive degree of photographic illusionism, while maintaining an element of playful humor. The surface of the work is a tapestry of rich color that the highly experimental artist achieved by applying numerous layers of transparent glazes to the support. A single light source originating from the doorway illuminates the figures from behind, adding an element of drama to the scene. The publication of The Knave of Hearts in 1925 coincided with a highly publicized exhibition of Parrish’s works at Scott & Fowles gallery in New York, which included the original oil paintings for the book. Every single work sold, helping to make 1925 and 1926 two of the most critically successful and creatively fruitful years of the artist’s career.
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