You may not know the name of this image, but you’ve almost certainly seen it — or a variation of it, at least.
Entitled Daybreak, it was created in 1922 by Maxfield Parrish, the legendary artist whose 148th birthday was yesterday. An instant viral sensation, the painting’s popularity only grew as the century unfurled, becoming, like Benji Franklin’s “Join, or Die,” a sort of pre-internet meme.
Originally commissioned by the art distribution house Reinthal & Newman, who previously published Parrish’s earlier Garden of Allah, Daybreak, neoclassical, dreamy and featuring florid, goddess-like youths enjoying a carefree day, captured the heady optimism of the early 20s, that idealistic period between the Great War and the Great Depression when everything seems light and gay, jazzy and fresh.
That said, as a gorgeous exemplar of the zeitgeist, Daybreak garnered a huge following: replicated by the thousands, Parrish’s image was found in 25% of American homes by 1925, vastly eclipsing Parrish’s earlier work, including illustrations for Collier’s, Scribner’s, and Life, as well as a slew of children’s books and advertisements for Wanamaker, Colgate, and Oneida. Already one of the richest, most popular artists in America, Daybreak raised Parrish’s profile, and profit, by a hundred-fold.
But Parrish was a bit embarrassed, and clearly somewhat irritated, by the hokey image’s success. He chalked up its popularity to sentimental housewives, soppy teenager girls, and fanciful college boys, rather than the elite he preferred. In fact, he grew so weary of trying to explain its creative origins that when his publisher asked for an artist’s explanation to share with fans, Parrish replied:
“I could do almost anything in the world for you but that. I know full well the public want a story, always want to know more about a picture than then picture tells them… [But] I couldn’t tell you a single think about Daybreak because there isn’t a single thing to tell: the picture tells all there is, there is nothing more. Daybreak is just daybreak.”
Though Parrish produced some similar images in the immediate future, such as a 1929 General Electric ad entitled Ecstasy, by 1931 Parrish had moved on to his passion, landscape murals — “I’m done with girls on rocks,” he told the AP, bluntly — and focused his energies entirely therein until his death in 1966.
Yet despite Parrish’s cold regard for his most famous creation, Daybreak’s appeal only grew as the century marched on, and by the twenty-first, it was described as the most reproduced painting in history, outselling both Leonardo Da Vinci’s seemingly inescapable The Last Supper and Andy Warhol’s equally ubiquitous Campbell Soup Can, according to The National Museum of American Illustration.
And Daybreak became such a cultural staple that it spawned mimetic homages and imitations, especially in the 1980s, when the nation’s glitzy attitude resembled that of the 1920s:
- The Moody Blues’ 1983 album The Present featured a space-aged version complete with flying saucer.
- Parrish’s Daybreak appeared on post-punk outfit Dalis Car’s 1984 album The Waking Hour.
- Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things, a 1985 collection of the Bloom County comic strip, paid tribute to Parrish’s work.
- A 1986 Nestlé commercial cast modern models as their classic neoclassical counterparts.
- In 1994, the French composer Saint-Preux used Daybreak as the cover of his album, The Last Opera.
- Michael Jackson and then-wife Lisa Marie Presley acted out Daybreak in MJ’s 1995 music video for “You Are Not Alone.”
- And, more recently, Cincinnati artist Kate Holterhoff invoked Daybreak in her mural Daybreak in O’Bryonville.
- Meanwhile, there are also rumors that James Cameron based Avatar planet, Pandora, on Daybreak’s aesthetic.
Parrish may have been ambivalent about his wildly beloved painting, but the viewing public sure wasn’t. As Holland Cotter noted in a 1996 New York Times review of a Parrish retrospective: “His work still has sweet-tooth pleasures aplenty, but it is also a mirror on which, however briefly, to dwell.”