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Art: Shows that serve the holiday mood

Holidays are ideal for art that makes people feel rosy without requiring strenuous mental gymnastics. In particular, nostalgia for the delights and surprises of childhood always plays well with museum-goers.

A John Tenniel illustration for “Alice,” at the Brandywine River Museum.
A John Tenniel illustration for “Alice,” at the Brandywine River Museum.Read moreRosenbach Museum and Library

Holidays are ideal for art that makes people feel rosy without requiring strenuous mental gymnastics. In particular, nostalgia for the delights and surprises of childhood always plays well with museum-goers.

If that's your preferred holiday diversion, you're in luck. The main attraction at the Brandywine River Museum, which always makes Christmas a special event, is a collection of illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland fantasies.

Many of the famous illustrators who applied their imaginative talents to Alice, from John Tenniel to Arthur Rackham and Philadelphian Jessie Willcox Smith, are in the cast.

The nearby Delaware Art Museum is serving a double helping of Maxfield Parrish, the Philadelphia native who became one of the giants of the Golden Age of Illustration in the first half of the last century.

The larger of two exhibitions features lithographic reproductions made from Parrish's paintings, while the smaller companion show focuses on a group of illustrated letters he created as a precocious teenager.

Offset lithography, used for mass-produced images such as advertising and magazine covers, isn't usually considered a high-art medium. However, the prints produced from Parrish's oils are complex technically. Furthermore, they attest to the exceptional public familiarity that his work achieved in the years before World War II.

As curator Sylvia Yount demonstrated in her Parrish retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1999, Parrish was an illustrator by inclination as well as by profession. In the 1890s, after studying briefly at PAFA and with Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute (now Drexel University), he immediately pursued a career illustrating books and magazines.

Born in 1870 during the high Victorian period, Parrish was an intuitive romantic who specialized in dreamy, idyllic fantasies suffused in a curious orange light - mood music for the eyes.

By layering his pigments in thin washes, he was able to produce acute three-dimensional, quasi-photographic effects that could be translated into chromolithographs through the use of multiple colors, up to 10 or 12 in some prints.

The ultimate application of this process was a series of custom-framed prints sold in department stores. The first of these, Daybreak of 1922, hangs at the exhibition entrance next to the painting it replicates. You can see from such a juxtaposition, repeated elsewhere with other images, that in terms of color fidelity the print isn't a true replica.

However, these prints were directed not at connoisseurs but at a middle-class clientele that wanted something soothing and perhaps inspirational to hang over the sofa.

Lower down the aesthetic scale were calendars. Over 16 years, Parrish created annual calendars, in two sizes, that promoted light bulbs for General Electric. By 1924, 1.5 million copies had been printed, many featuring nubile young women dramatically illuminated.

Other subjects included among the 13 examples in the show are Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods), the Venetian Lamplighter, and the Lamp Seller of Bagdad.

The smaller show of illustrated letters documents an extended trip that Parrish made with his parents to Europe in the mid-1880s. His letters home to friends Henry and Edward Bancroft were profusely illustrated; in several, the text is minimal, and the drawing dominates the page.

These weren't, for the most part, quick sketches of the type that van Gogh inserted into his letters, but precisely detailed drawings in complex configurations.

The contents of the letters are less interesting than the demonstration of a fully developed proficiency for draftsmanship by the age of 14.

Parrish's artist father, Stephen, must have tutored his son, yet the skill on display in this letters is so mature that it had to have been primarily native. What could PAFA have possibly taught him, one wonders?

"Alice in Pictureland." Masterly illustrations can be a joy forever when they so perfectly shape the essence of a story that they fix the narrative and its characters forever in the reader's memory.

Such is the case with John Tenniel's drawings for the first publication, in 1865, of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll described the zany denizens of Wonderland, but it was Tenniel, a famed London caricaturist, who brought them to life.

His comical inventions, from the battle-ax Queen of Hearts and the zany Mad Hatter to the endearing Cheshire Cat, were so perfectly attuned to Carroll's text that they have inspired several generations of illustrators, most of them British or American.

Tenniel's influence is the nub of a delightful exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum devoted to images of Alice and her cohort. The show comprises more than 45 works on paper in various media, several paintings, and nearly 40 books.

It begins with 10 classics by Tenniel, pencil drawings and wood engravings no larger than postcards, and traces various interpretations of Alice from late Victorian times to the present.

The 10 Tenniels are lent by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, which owns a substantial collection of such material. They're small, delicate impressions that consequently must be examined closely, yet nothing that follows them in the show improves on their magical inventions.

As the Alice stories (Through the Looking Glass is the sequel) move into the 20th century, the images become larger and color is added. A few, like Barry Moser's Mad Hatter, are dark and menacing. Anne Bachelier's Cheshire Cat, a mixed-media piece dated 2005, is actually grotesquely frightening.

Eventually Walt Disney created an animated version, in 1951; the exhibition offers a poster of that classic. Disney took Alice's adventures out of their time period. This is why Tenniel's images remain classic - they're unadulterated Victoriana.

Although the spirit of the Alice images shifts markedly through the decades, and especially in the present, one is struck by how Wonderland continues to appeal to artists working today. By the end of the show, the characters and the story occasionally become unrecognizable, as in DeLoss McGraw's large gouache painting, Alice in a Pool of Tears.

Don't be put off by the downbeat ending; the bulk of "Alice in Pictureland" is delightful, the perfect holiday ramble down memory lane.

Art: Maxfield and Alice