Clara Weaver Parrish’s life was marked by privilege, great love, and grief—grief that deeply influenced her personal and professional endeavors, and found elegant expression in her oeuvre. As an artist who could “feel the tragedy,” Parrish channeled her sorrow as “inspiration for art of the highest sort.” In her hometown of Selma, Alabama, the future artist’s father had once been regarded as one of the state’s wealthiest men. And while the family fortune certainly suffered in the aftermath of the Civil War, young Clara and her sisters received a typically genteel education for the day. The Weaver household was an especially creative one, where the arts were heartily encouraged and pursued.
In light of her considerable talent, the Weavers supported their daughter’s aspirations and underwrote her enrollment at the Art Students League in New York. A relatively new institution at the time of her matriculation, Parrish flourished in the League’s atelier-style curriculum under the instruction of leading American Impressionist William Merritt Chase and classical painter Kenyon Cox. Her portraits’ “soulful and introspective quality, with their dark backgrounds and controlled use of color” can be traced to these teachers’ influence. In particular, the women in Parrish’s portraits are indeed “soulful and introspective.” Whether living model—as in the likeness she executed of her friend and fellow artist Anne Goldthwaite—or fictional character, her subjects rarely smile and, in many examples, appear to be reflective, resigned, or morose. Rendered in pencil, pastel, and oil, these sober compositions are at once descriptive and contemplative, suggestive of a strong—even if imaginary—connection between artist and model.
In 1887, Clara Weaver married William Peck Parrish, a Selma native and successful financier who soon thereafter obtained a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Living in New York then and later, Parrish exhibited widely, both in and beyond the city, at prestigious venues such as the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago. A daughter, born in 1889 and christened Clara Weaver Parrish, died before her second birthday. Just a year later, William Parrish suffered a fatal heart attack. Not long before these devastating losses, Parrish had begun working in the stained glass studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. In this capacity, she designed massive biblically-themed window panels for prominent churches in New York, as well as for her home parish of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, which she dedicated to her family’s memory. The characteristic jewel tones and religious iconography of stained glass are evident in Parrish’s efforts in other media.
Untethered from domestic responsibilities, Parrish traveled—and painted—extensively. For a time, she kept a Paris studio on the Boulevard Montparnasse and studied with Gustave Courtois at the Académie Colorossi. Whether inculcated by Chase or her French mentors, her adoption of plein air techniques is apparent in the vibrantly colored diminutive oil, The Flower Garden. While abroad, she produced picturesque portrait etchings as well as scenes of charming French villages and historic landmarks. When World War I interrupted her foreign sojourn, Parrish returned to New York, where her studio was located in the fashionable Van Dyke Building. She regularly returned to Alabama for visits and submitted works to Southern exhibitions, including the 1910 Appalachian Exposition and smaller regional shows. Over the course of her career, Parrish was active in national women’s arts organizations and served as an officer of the Woman’s Art Club.