Born Frederick Parrish in Philadelphia, his father, distinguished American etcher Stephen Parrish, significantly influenced Parrish's work. During an 1883 trip to Europe, the young Parrish caught typhoid and, during his long recuperation, his father taught him to draw. Inspired to become an artist, Parrish was drawn to the meticulous egg tempera technique of the Old Masters and romantic subjects of the Pre- Raphaelites, both of which shaped his vision and technique which eventually combined naturalism, romanticism and pure fantasy.
During study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art and exposure to master illustrator Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute Parrish expanded his knowledge from intuitive to professional illustrator. Painting historic and romanticized subjects, he often used his wife, Lydia Austin, and later companion Susan Lewin as his costumed models. Using photography to plan his oils on canvas, he employed the precisely measured proportional format of Dynamic Symmetry, a design principle used all his life.
With his first paid commission a mural of Old King Cole in 1894, Parrish was discovered nationally and produced his first magazine cover for Harper's Bazaar in 1895 which led to commissions for more than 25 magazines over the course of the next 40 years including Harper's, Colliers, Scribners, Century magazines and myriad classic book illustrations, culminating in The Knave of Hearts in 1925. Also in demand as an advertising illustrator, Parrish produced many signature images and, between 1918 and 1934, produced annual images for Edison Mazda's calendar which brought him into nearly every American home. Ever the "businessman with the brush," from 1920 through the early 1960s, Parrish's work was widely distributed in millions of prints, calendars and greeting cards.
Although for 65 years was one of the best known and successful artists of his time, Parrish's romantic images seemed passe with the Depression of the 30s. The artist turned exclusively to landscape painting at that time, living and working at "The Oaks" in the artistic and intellectual community of Cornish, New Hampshire, moving there in 1898 and where he passed away 10 days after a major retrospective of his work in 1966.