Robert Andrew Parkera prolific watercolorist whose impressionist paintings illustrated books, album covers and magazines for nearly 70 years, and who continued to work into his 90s even though his vision was diminished by macular degeneration, has died on December 27 at his home in West Cornwall, Connecticut. He was 96 years old.
His daughter-in-law Shantal Riley Parker confirmed the death.
Mr. Parker’s watercolors have a free, flowing style what Print magazine said in 2013 achieved “maximum effects with minimum detail”.
He painted monkeys and landscapes, imaginary battle scenes and spectators under umbrellas at the Masters golf tournament, circus elephants dancing a ballet and Duke Ellington conducting his orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival.
His work has appeared in books, many aimed at children, and in magazines including Fortune, Esquire, Time, The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated. He also sold watercolors for the fine arts market.
“Bob emerged at a time when many illustrators were influenced by the techniques of Norman Rockwell, so there was a certain photorealism,” said Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA design department in the School of Visual Arts, during a telephone interview. “But he, Robert Weaver and Alan Cober were the first wave to break through this realism and sentimentalism with expressionist intensity and impressionist fluidity.”
Early in his career, Mr. Parker came to the attention of the poet Marianne Moore, who wrote an appreciation of his work in 1958.
“Robert Parker is one of the most precise and at the same time the least literal painters,” she wrote in Arts magazine. “He combines the mystical and the real, working both abstractly and realistically. Praising a Parker watercolor of a dog, she added: “A cursive ease in the lines suggests Rembrandt’s fondness for the tool in hand; better yet, there is a look of emotion synonymous with susceptibility to happiness.
Mr. Parker and Ms. Moore later collaborated on the book “Eight Poems” (1962), for which he painted fish, ostriches and other animals.
Among the dozens of children’s books Mr. Parker illustrated were “Flight: A Panorama of Aviation” (1981), by Melvin B. Zisfein, and “Action Jackson” (2002), about the artist Jackson Pollock, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. . Mr. Parker’s use of “almost Japanese inkjets” to imitate Mr. Pollock’s drip paintings was praised in The New York Times by the art critic Peter Plagens.
His illustrations for “The Elephant Ballet” (2006), by Leda Schubert, recall the ballet designed by the Ringling brothers and the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1942 for 50 elephants and 50 ballerinas, with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by George Balanchine.
“When Schubert recalls Balanchine and Stravinsky’s youth in Russia, Parker offers a delightful view of onion-domed churches against a darkening sunset,” Jed Perl wrote in his Times review.
Mr. Parker received the Randolph Caldecott Medal, the highest honor given to a children’s illustrated book, for his work on “Pop Corn and My Goodness” (1969), an absurdist tale of a couple’s family life, told in verse by Edna Mitchell Preston.
Mr. Parker also made prints (including a series on the Nazis ironically called “German humor”), sculptures and monotypes. He was elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2004.
“There was a certain casualness in his attitude towards his work,” said Joe Ciardiello, an illustrator who was a friend of Mr. Parker. “Many artists can be very picky about the right type of paper, pen or paint. But Bob used everything he had – people gave him paint, he used cheap stuff, expensive stuff. He wasn’t precious about it.
Robert Andrew Parker was born on May 14, 1927 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father, William, was a dentist who, because of his position with the United States Public Health Service, occasionally moved his family. His mother, Harriett (Cowdin) Parker, was an amateur artist who supplied her son with art supplies.
Bob began his artistic work in earnest when, after contracting tuberculosis at age 8 or 9, he and his family moved from Michigan to Fort Stanton, New Mexico, for a more arid climate. He spent most of the next two years in a bed on a veranda, reading voraciously and drawing battle scenes from the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, based on radio accounts of the conflicts.
After serving in the Army Air Corps as an aircraft and engine mechanic, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952. He then moved to New York, where he One of his prints was included in an exhibition of young artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He taught art for a few years at the New York School for the Deaf, studied for a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, and developed his printmaking skills at Atelier 17.
Then came an unusual opportunity. MGM asked him to go to Paris to work on “Thirst for life” the 1956 biographical film starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh.
The original plan was for the hands of Mr. Parker and Mr. Douglas to alternate on screen, where they appear to create Van Gogh’s paintings. But they only worked on one, “Wheatfield with Crows,” before Mr. Parker’s job involved copying about 100 of van Gogh’s drawings and paintings for use in the film. With his winnings, he bought enough paint in France to last 12 years.
Back home, he began working for major magazines. Fortune sent him to Guatemala to represent United Fruit’s film. the banana industry, and Algeria, Libya, Bolivia and Argentina to illustrate oil exploration in these countries. He also painted imaginary war scenes for Esquire in 1960. Sports Illustrated sent him to the Masters.
The Air Force sent him to document – through painting, drawing and photography – military operations in Colombia and Panama. He also painted album covers for jazz artists including Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum and Dave Brubeck.
Mr. Parker, a long-time interest in jazz, wrote and illustrated the children’s book “Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum” (2008), which Kirkus Reviews praised his “ink-lined watercolors” which “prove as resplendent.” interaction of hue and tone like Tatum’s improvisations. He also played drums in a band called Jive by Five in New England for about 30 years.
He is survived by his sons, Christopher, Anthony, Eric and Nicholas, all of whom play drums professionally, as well as Geoffrey, an artist, as well as six grandchildren. His first marriage, to Dorothy Daniels, ended in divorce. His second wife, Judith Mellecker, who was editor of Talk of the Town at the New Yorker and collaborated with him on two children’s books, died in August.
Mr. Parker began noticing changes in his vision in 2000 and was diagnosed with macular degeneration that year. He adapted by working with his face closer to his paintings, as his vision was ultimately diminished by 60 to 70 percent. As his reading slowed, it would take him an entire day to read The New York Review of Books.
In interviews in 2014 and 2015 with the Vision and Art Projectwhich explores the impact of macular degeneration on artists, he describes his vision as “blurry and wavy” and says his drawing has become less precise.
“I was looking at old sketchbooks,” he said, “and I thought I could still do that line. Sometimes I have to say no. But I don’t know if it’s the age, the eyes, or both.