Clara Weaver Parrish
(Dallas County, Alabama, 1861 - 1925, New York, New York)
In 1980, former MMFA curator, C. Reynolds Brown, organized an exhibition of the paintings of Clara Weaver Parrish. A painting in the Museum’s collection, "Portrait of Anne Goldthwaite," sparked his interest. Since Parrish’s death in 1925, much of her work has been lost or destroyed and little was known about the locations of surviving pieces. Thanks to the collections at the Museum, the Sturdivant Museum Association in Selma, Alabama, and private collectors in Alabama, students and scholars alike can study the works of this important early female Alabama artist.
Clara Weaver Parrish was born at Emerald Place Plantation in Dallas County, Alabama in 1861. Parrish was the granddaughter of Phillip J. Weaver, one of the largest landholders and wealthiest men in Alabama. Parrish was one of five children and demonstrated a talent for art at an early age. Her parents supported her efforts, and they sent her to the Art Student’s League in New York, where she studied with William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox, and Julian Alden Weir. Parrish’s parents’ support was unusual for the time, as most people had negative feelings for women leaving the home in pursuit of education. Although art education for women in the 1870s and 1880s had become more progressive, the art field still gave little recognition to women during Parrish’s early student and career days.(1)
In 1887, Parrish returned to Selma and married William Parrish. The couple moved to Birmingham where they had a daughter (also named Clara Weaver Parrish), who unfortunately died in eighteen months later. After burying their daughter in Selma, the couple moved to New York where William took a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Shortly thereafter in 1901, William died unexpectedly. Parrish spent the rest of her life devoted to the arts and its promotion.
During the early 1890s, Parrish achieved a reputation as a pastelist and oil painter, and earned a position in the Women’s Art Club. In 1893, Parrish exhibited "An Arrangement in Yellow" (before 1893, location unknown). In an article from "The New-York Daily Tribune," Parrish, along with another young artist was compared to John La Farge, the distinguished American painter: “The two artists in this exhibition, much younger and infinitely less masterly than Mr. La Farge deserve nonetheless to be named with him for the particular richness of their color. Miss Clara W. Parrish, of whose exceptional gift we have spoken before, shows in No. 232, 'An Arrangement in Yellow,' a surprising charm of color—a charm which we miss in the two other designs which she contributes, and miss with surprise also.”(2)
In 1890, Louis Comfort Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in New York hired Parrish. Tiffany Studios produced stained-glass windows for ten documented sites in Alabama with Parrish assisting in five of the designs.(3) Parrish designed three windows at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama. Two of the windows are located in the nave of the church and are distinctly different from the other windows. One is the Ascension, while the other is an image of Christ and the Mary Magdalene. The third window is located upstairs in the rectory of the church and represents the Marriage at Cana. When Parrish’s parents, brother, and husband died, she gave these windows in their memory. Parrish continued to paint while she was working for Tiffany, and it was during this period that she painted the Museum’s "Portrait of Anne Goldthwaite" (c. 1900).
Parrish spent as much as a year abroad, traveling extensively in France and Italy. She became very familiar with the current styles in Paris, where portrait etching was in vogue. Parrish began creating her own portrait etchings along with etching of locales in and near Paris. In 1910, she had a solo exhibition at E. Bonneau & Fils in Paris where she exhibited some of these works. "The New York Evening Sun" printed an article in 1914 entitled, “Work of Women Artists Receives Much Attention—Winter Art Exhibitions.” Parrish is quoted as saying “Portrait etchings or rather dry, dry-points are considered very chic in Paris, and will become so in New York when they are better known.”(4) The article further states that Parrish’s color portrait etchings were among the attractions of the winter art season in New York, and that they were executed in Paris by the artist. Sturdivant Hall owns many examples of these famous etchings. "Portrait of a Southern Gentleman" (c.1910) is a portrait of a striking man in formal clothing standing in front of mantle. He looks intently at the viewer and his strength of character is conveyed through his gaze.
During her stays in Paris, Parrish studied with Gustav Coutois at the Academy Colorossi and Raffael Collin at Fonteney aux Roses, a village near Paris. Collin was known as a great French "plein air" painter and it is here that Parrish painted her models surrounded by gardens of lilies in the bright sunlight of France. Works such as "The Red Lily" (c. 1920, former collection of Sturdivant Hall, Selma) are decorative “with a colorist palette whose pale pastels, soft lines, and crowded use of space relate to French decorative painters of the era of Raphael Collin and Puvis de Chavannes."(5)
The last twenty-five years of Parrish’s works appear to be Pre-Raphealite influenced. Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelites in the mid-nineteenth-century. This group of rebellious, high-spirited young men created paintings with social themes, moralistic lessons, scenes from romantic poetry, and paintings that dealt with romantic or tragic love. Their works often recalled scenes from medieval history as well. Pre-Raphaelite style was characterized by an intense fidelity to nature, sometimes segments of canvas were said to have taken months at a time in order to ensure complete accuracy. It is unknown where Parrish viewed Pre-Raphaelite paintings, however, she did have a studio in Paris, and it would be feasible for her to have seen a show there or to have traveled to England where they were based.
For example, "The Provincetown Pageant" (c. 1920-25, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Selma) is a magnificent parade scene, which takes place in the Middle Ages or Renaissance. The central focus of the work is a beautiful woman on a horse dressed as a fairy-tale princess. She is surrounded by people in the parade: a drummer walks in front of her; a young child holding flowers walks at the horse’s shoulder; an attendant also walks beside her dropping flowers in her path; and an artist stands gazing in a wonting manner, palette and brush in hand. Curiously, two figures (one in the right corner and the other in the left) are dressed in twentieth-century clothing, and watch the parade. Sturdivant Hall in Selma owns a similar medieval scene in which a princess or queen in a brilliant red dress faces the viewer.(6) She holds a bunch of flowers in her arms. A young boy stands to her left, and he has a brilliant yellow halo surrounding his head. It is unclear if he is meant to be Christ or another Biblical figure. To her right is another attendant, while a man dressed in blue sits a top a white steed. It is unknown if the work is meant to be a religious painting in medieval guise or what Parrish’s intentions were in creating the painting. Other paintings owned by Sturdivant Hall are representations of a mother and child, aside from dealing with romantic love. It is quite possible that Parrish created these works with her own husband and child in mind, both whom she had lost by the turn of the century.
In an essay written by Lela Irwin Legare and presented to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Volunteer Committee, the author wrote:
We must remember that during the designing of windows Clara Weaver Parrish produced a prodigious amount of work in all her many media. Her exhibits ranged from the Royal Academy of London and Liverpool to the Byrd School in Selma. Her work elicited praise from critics of the annual exhibitions held in New York and Paris. Her memberships in clubs and societies of artists were never passive. She used her abundant energy to lecture on the value and necessity of art museums, and to artist groups for the purpose of improving work and creating interest in the local towns. She was keenly interested in training young people to love and appreciate good art and to understand its many forms and symbolisms. Her writings were sparks from her brilliant and perceptive mind. In fact, in the last year of her life, Parrish was requested by two well-known art magazines, The Revue Modern and The Good and The Beautiful, to furnish them with sketches, her mode of work, and her artistic preferences…By 1901, her works were hung in favored light in art exhibitions in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the Paris Exposition, where her pictures were chosen as representative of American art.(7)
In 1924, Parrish made her last visit to Selma, having been requested by the family of Mrs. Indiana Sewell Jones to design "The Marriage at Cana" stained-glass window at St. Paul’s. By the spring of 1925, Parrish realized that she was becoming physically ill. As her health continued to deteriorate, she asked her sister Rose to accompany her to New York, where she would dispose of her studio and arrange her affairs so that she could return to Selma. In Selma, she continued to live out the rest of her life painting, teaching, and supporting the arts. Tragically, she became mortally ill upon her return to New York, and died on November 11, 1925. She is buried beside her husband and daughter in Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.
1) When art academies in America were founded in the early to mid-nineteenth-century, women were not allowed to enroll in classes. As the years progressed, the schools were made co-ed, however, women were still kept out of life-drawing classes, as it was not deemed appropriate for women to view and study a male
2) C. Reynolds Brown, Clara Weaver Parrish (Montgomery: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1980): 7.
3) According to Lana Burgess, former Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the MMFA, of the windows created in Alabama, four are verified in the Tiffany Studio archives, and the remaining six have been authenticated by Janice Ford-Freeman in her thesis A Different Light: A Survey of Stained Glass Windows in Central Alabama Churches as being Tiffany designs. Nine of these were for churches and the tenth was commissioned for the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. The church window are as follows: Madonna and Child, ca. 1905, in St. Michael and Angels Episcopal Church, Anniston; a medallion-style window, ca. 1915, in Grace Episcopal Church, Anniston; a figural subject, ca. 1924, in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery; one window, date unknown, in Christ Episcopal Church, Mobile; Baptism of Christ, ca. 1904, in the First Baptist Church, Selma; two figural windows, ca. 1920, in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Selma; two figural windows, ca. 1920, in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Selma; an angel subject, c. 1900, in Christ Episcopal Church, Tuscaloosa; and a large Tiffany window, 1898, in Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Uniontown. The tenth design was for the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. This window of a Christian knight, commissioned in 1925, was moved to the W. Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library in 1994.
4) Brown, 17.
6) The work is untitled and undated, presumably it is from c. 1920-25. Sturdivant Hall owns a number of Parrish’s works that were created in a similar style along with furniture form her studio in New York. All of Parrish’s late paintings have an illustrator’s “feel” to them, therefore, it is also possible that these paintings were created and intended to be illustrations for stories or children’s books.
7) Brown, 18.
- Letha Clair Robertson, 4/14/04