What happened to the blue in Daybreak?
Maxfield Parrish painted his most famous work Daybreak in 1922. It appeared on several editions of art prints and on the cover of Coy Ludwig’s book from 1973. That book, and all those prints in antique shops have a decidedly “Parrish Blue” tonality (bottom image).
The painting was sold in the 1920s and was hidden for almost 50 years in a yacht near Boston. It surfaced again in the 1970s, where it was sold a couple more times.
In all the reproductions since then, it has a much more golden and violet appearance (top image). I saw the original when it was shown at the Norman Rockwell Museum retrospective exhibit, and it really did have that golden/violet appearance.
If you put the two side by side, at first glance it seems like a difference in color balance. Maybe all the early prints were wrong, printed from a transparency that was shifted too far into the blue range.
Maybe all the warm colors faded out of all the reproductions. Maybe the “Maxfield Parrish blue” was never there in the first place, and was a consequence of bad reproduction. But Parrish personally approved the early reproductions.
Let’s see what happens if you adjust the color balance sliders in Photoshop and make the “new” version more blue. Now they look a bit more similar, but there’s a crucial difference.
The value organization of the new incarnation is completely different from the original version. Note how the milky cerulean water above the sleeping girl’s legs now is a very dark value (1). Where that promontory in the valley used to separate from the shore (2), now the shadows are much darker.
And where the values of the blue shadows in the far mountains used to be much lighter than the bending figure, now they’re darker and more uneven (3). Changing the color balance sliders shouldn’t affect the value organization.
Is it an alternate version? Parrish dealer Alma Gilbert, in her book on Parrish’s Masterworks, referred to rumors about a second version, but put them to rest with the confirmation by Parrish's son upon seeing the painting again in the 1970s.
Was the painting overcleaned? Did some overzealous conservator remove some blue scumbles or glazes? Normally when you clean a painting, you take off the smoky, dirty, orange and brown layers and the yellowed damar varnish, and the painting gets more of a pure blue look. It doesn’t usually get more yellow, brown, or violet. The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel (above) intensified all the colors.
Parrish’s unfinished paintings showed he worked in various layers of pure pigments. Here he left a blue underpainting of a tree, with warm glazes applied on the tree at left. Did he work warm-over-cool glazes and cool-over-warm semi-opaque milky glazes on Daybreak? Is the new edition of the painting closer to the original product of Parrish’s hand? If so, how can we account for all those early approved prints?
I don’t know the answer. It’s kind of a mystery. Maybe some of you can shed more light on it.
There’s a good discussion of the painting at Jim Vadeboncoeur’s site here and here.
Sistine Chapel restoration controversy.