THE American art establishment tends to be harsh toward illustrators. It is willing to forgive Winslow Homer, John Sloan, Edward Hopper, and Andy Warhol, among others, for their youthful indiscretions as commercial hirelings, but it won't extend that courtesy to such dedicated, lifelong professionals as Charles Russell, N.C. Wyeth, or Norman Rockwell. No previously successful illustrator has had a harder time of it recently than Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), probably the best-known and best-loved American painter/illustrator of the early 20th century. More than any other recent artist, he has become synonymous with prettiness and sentimentality, with an overly sweet and lush perception of reality and of art.
This view of Parrish has persisted over the past several decades, largely because few of his individual paintings have been seen by the public, and no exhibition of his work has been held in New York since his death. As a result, any information about his art has had to come almost entirely from faded or color-distorted reproductions.
Thanks to the Judy Goffman Gallery here, and to its current exhibition, ``Maxfield Parrish - Fantasy and Romance,'' we can now decide for ourselves whether this perception of Parrish is accurate or not.
Ms. Goffman gives us a wide range of evidence - 30 paintings, watercolors, and drawings dating from 1893 to 1949 and covering a broad spectrum of subjects from book, corporate, and calendar illustrations to straightforward landscapes and set designs for Shakespearean productions.
There's ``Afterglow,'' a tiny, 6-by-7-inch landscape study that's a miniature treasure of luminous atmospheric effects; ``Lull Brook Winter,'' ``June Skies (A Perfect Day),'' and ``Aquamarine,'' three outdoor scenes that only a master painter could have produced; and ``The Glen,'' a 1936 oil that appeared on the 1938 Brown & Bigelow calendar, and that is the quintessential Parrish painting, right down to the extraordinary detail and lush coloristic effects that no one else could duplicate.
Just as impressive is ``Hilltop,'' a sumptuous oil of two young people resting in what can only be described as a magical mountain landscape. It was created specifically for mass color reproduction, and became one of his greatest popular successes. Also outstanding are ``The Reservoir at Villa Falconieri,'' a bold and dramatic depiction of trees and light, and two richly worked designs for a 1909 production of Shakespeare's ``The Tempest.''
Less imposing but no less successful are several small watercolors that are both brilliantly rendered and more in line with late 20th-century tastes than his romantic and opulent oils. His figure compositions, in particular, are the most dated and least original of his works - as well as the most purely illustrational. It's not that they aren't beautifully done. One or two in the show, in fact, are exquisitely drawn and finished and could easily hold their own against some of the best academic art of the mid-to-late 19th century.
But that's just the problem. His figures are academic, and of the most sweetly idealized sort at that. In fact, had he painted nothing but people, his low art-world status would be richly deserved.
He did considerably more than that, however - thanks largely to his 1935 decision to concentrate on what interested him most: landscapes. What resulted was original and effective, and it now serves as the basis for whatever art-world rehabilitation he might achieve in the next two or three decades.
Even so, rehabilitation won't be an easy task, considering the current lack of sustained museum interest in 20th-century landscape painting and particularly in the highly romantic style of most of his outdoor scenes. But tastes change, and Parrish's best landscapes may once again strike a responsive chord. If they do, it is obvious that there will be a sufficient number of outstanding pieces to sustain his upgraded reputation.
At the Judy Goffman Gallery, 18 East 77th Street, through Apr. 29.