PLAINFIELD, N.H. — Maxfield Parrish, considered one of the most prominent painters and illustrators of the 20th century, came to this rural town in 1898. He bought land across the Connecticut River from where his father lived and designed a home to sit squarely with a view of Mount Ascutney.
The move would herald a renaissance in his artistry. Parrish would gravitate toward landscapes, announcing to the Associated Press in 1931 that he was done with illustrations, done painting “girls on rocks.’’ He’d paint only what he loved: landscapes, “unattainable’’ scenes people don’t see every day.
Parrish painted scenes around his land, which he named “The Oaks’’ for its giant trees. These 45 acres were his playground, where Parrish the successful illustrator flourished as a painter, architect, mechanic, muralist, and photographer. It was a place where Parrish, the lover of music and theater, and Parrish, the dreamer of fairy tales, was free to explore.
He created some of America’s best-known art at “The Oaks,’’ including “Daybreak,’’ a 1922 painting reproduced so many times it was “the decorating sensation of the decade,’’ author Coy Ludwig said in his book “Maxfield Parrish.’’
The sale offers a glimpse into how where you call home can inspire your art.
Parrish lived among dozens of the best-known artists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some built summer homes in the reclusive hills of the Upper Valley. They worked during the day and socialized at night. They came from cities like New York, seeking relief from summer’s humidity.
“They could breathe easier here,’’ said James B. Atkinson, a former Dartmouth College professor who cowrote a book on the colony with Virginia Reed Colby called “Footprints of the Past: Images of Cornish, New Hampshire and the Cornish Colony.’’
About 100 artists are said to have been part of it, following the lead of renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Writers came to write, painters to paint, sculptors to sculpt. Some came to retire. They built expansive homes and gardens that graced the hills and mountain in a region where one of the longest covered bridges in the nation is still perched above the Connecticut River.
Thomas Wilmer Dewing was a famous figure painter who captured the hills and river in “Summer,’’ an oil painting of “two gossamer-clothed women floating through the landscape,’’ Atkinson said.
Henry Brown Fuller painted his famous “Illusions’’ here — an oil of a nude woman and child with the peak of Mount Ascutney in the background.
Willard L. Metcalf was called “poet laureate of the New England hills’’ for his Upper Valley landscapes.
Many of the artists stayed just for the summers, but some like Parrish — referred to as “chickadees’’ for their perseverance in winter — didn’t leave. He lived in Plainfield even after the Cornish Art Colony dissipated around 1920; he lived here until his death in 1966.
Parrish spoke of “The Oaks’’ as if it were magic.
He talked about the “glorious’’ mountain and the “blue hills’’ he saw outside his window. He photographed the land incessantly and painted it repeatedly.
Parrish became known for dreamlike landscapes and blue horizons — a mixed cobalt blue that appears in the skies and rivers of his paintings again and again. The color was so famous, people named it “Parrish Blue.’’
Parrish captured his surroundings, including the river and that famous covered bridge in “Early Autumn, White Birch’’ and “Study for the River at Ascutney.’’
He painted the trees, never pleased with the result.
“Only God can make a tree. True enough, but I’d love to see Him paint one,’’ Parrish once wrote in a letter to the artistic director at Brown and Bigelow, a calendar and greeting card company, according to Ludwig. “Give me a hundred years or more, and I think I can paint a tree that satisfies me.’’
Valerie Balint, program manager for the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said an artist’s home is a sanctuary and, for many, “laboratories for experimentation.’’ (The program is a consortium of more than 30 independent museums. Parrish’s estate is not affiliated.)
Sometimes the land offers a respite, Balint said, “a reboot out of the city and inspiration for the art itself. It’s the power of place.’’
In Parrish’s paintings, “Cornish appears as a kind of Arcadian paradise that liberated the imagination, uncovering, in Parrish’s case, a tension between an intensified reality and pastoral dream,’’ Sylvia Yount, head of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, wrote in her book “Maxfield Parrish 1870-1966.’’
Edward Hopper, named one of most important realists of the 20th century, struggled as a commercial illustrator until he found his place in Truro. Hopper became known for watercolor and oil paintings that captured the light and architecture of his surroundings, according to Gail Levin, a professor of art history, American studies, and women studies at Baruch College in New York City and the author of “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.’’
And Winslow Homer’s artwork shifted from relaxed to dramatic when he moved from New York City to Prouts Neck, Maine, and added a second-floor balcony, enabling him to have unobstructed views of the rocks and the seascape, said Diana Greenwold, associate curator of American art at the Portland Museum of Art. “There is something particular to this environment that really captures Homer’s imagination.’’ (Homer’s Maine studio is part of the Historic Artists’ consortium.)
The popular 20th-century artist Andrew Wyeth captured the area where he grew up in Pennsylvania and summered in Maine. “He wanted to paint trees that he knew and loved and hills that he knew, that he walked on,’’ said Wyeth’s son, Jamie, also an artist.
But sometimes an artist’s home becomes the subject.
The home Parrish designed was one of his most famous pieces of art, but it’s exact rendering cannot be found in any of his work, according to his granddaughter Joanna Parrish Gordon, the former Joanna Maxfield Parrish. It was written about and photographed for dozens of articles, however, and it fascinated critics, as well as Parrish’s friends and colleagues.
It was a “child’s dream home in every sense of the word,’’ Homer Saint-Gaudens, son of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, told Critic magazine in 1905, according to Yount.
The estate was constructed in tandem with nature. Parrish built around giant oak trees instead of felling them and on top of rocks and ledges, taking a modern approach by leaving gaps between the exterior and interior walls so he could drain the pipes every winter or update the electrical simply by removing a panel.
The main house burned in a chimney fire in 1979. It was rebuilt a year later to match the original exterior architecture, but the interior is different. His original studio, where he created his artwork and eventually spent his winters, remains, however, showcasing Parrish’s ingenuity — think giant windows that slide into the walls like pocket doors.
Parrish was always looking for inspiration, even donning snowshoes to walk the property at midnight, his granddaughter said. “He painted a white oak so many times that he said it paid for the place.’’
But he wasn’t adverse to tinkering with nature.
“He was always changing things so that they were beautiful to look at,’’ Parrish Gordon said, recalling how he put weights on the branches of an apple tree so that it would weep over a terrace wall and “look sweet and romantic.’’
“Granddad’s home was from another world,’’ she said.
It’s been a little more than 50 years since Parrish died. Modern conveniences in Cornish and the surrounding areas are still few and far between. The mountain still looms, but the artist colony is long gone.
It’s unclear why artists disappeared from this area. Some of their homes are owned by their families. Some have been sold.
Bliss, whose illustrations have frequented covers of The New Yorker, didn’t know about the Cornish art colony when he bought the house. He said the place just suited him.
“I love the dirt roads. I love the fact that I can get snowed in here and can’t leave for a few days,’’ he said.
Bliss thinks the place will inspire colleagues, so he’s establishing a residency. “Cartoonists can come here and just relax — just breathe,’’ he said.
“The Oaks’’ is now owned by Samuel “Sy’’ Mintz, a Boston architect and city planner. Mintz didn’t know anything about Parrish when he bought the property 30 years ago, but the architect grew fond of the painter and his work.
Mintz — who spent 10 years restoring the studio, which had been left open to the weather — said he hopes someone who cares about the property as much as Parrish did buys it.
Parrish’s last painting — “Getting Away From It All’’ — shows his affection for the solitude of rural life. It’s of a house on a cliff and a single tree, a scene of life surrounded by nothing but nature.
Katy Savage is a freelance writer based in Vermont. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ksavagevt. Subscribe to our newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.