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Old King Cole 1905

by Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966

The jokes one hears in a bar have a way of getting around. There is no better example of this than the 30-foot oil painting, Old King Cole, commissioned by John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV in 1905. He asked Maxfield Parrish, illustrator, painter, and the most popular commercial artist in America during the early 1900’s, to paint it for the bar of the Knickerbocker Hotel at 6 Times Square. However, the artist, a principled Quaker, was reluctant. Therefore, in a reportedly contentious negotiation, Astor upped the commission to the exorbitant price of $5,000.

At that rate, though, he wanted to be pictured in it – as the King, himself. It seems that Astor, at the time, had earned all the respect that money can buy: he went to Harvard, but left without a degree. He divorced his wife and, at 46, married a 17 year old. The press made fun of him, calling him “Jack Ass.”

Nonetheless, Maxfield Parrish acquiesced to Astor’s wishes – sort of. If you look closely at King Cole’s face you will see a good likeness of John Jacob Astor himself. But if you look closely at the faces of the courtiers and pages, you’ll see something else altogether. It is said that Parrish and the other well known artists of the day were having a contest to see who could essentially illustrate a fart joke in a work of art on public display. Judging by the expressions of the courtiers, Parrish won the contest. He himself denied it. When asked he said “My intentions when painting the mural had been 110 percent pure.”

This joke has made the rounds of several bars. And so has the painting itself. Although many refer to the “Old King Cole” as a mural, even Parrish himself, it was not painted directly onto the wall of the Knickerbocker bar. It’s actually three eight- by ten-foot paintings, which made its many changes of venue possible.

It started out in the bar at the Knickerbocker Hotel. But by 1921, after Vincent Astor, John Jacob Astor IV’s son by his first wife, turned the Knickerbocker into office space, it moved to the Racquet and Tennis Building at Park Avenue. In 1935, Vincent transferred the painting to another Astor property, the St. Regis Hotel at 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. In 1948, it was installed in the hotel’s bar, which was renamed for it. You can see it there today.

Of course, Parrish proved that a joke can be both funny and elegant. The painting’s glazing technique, a hallmark of his work, allows the light to pass through and then reflect back out, make it seemingly glow from within. Also, the color palette, distinctive to Parrish, is much in evidence here, particularly since its 2007 cleaning. In fact, the twelve-week, $100,000 restoration has truly dignified the King, fart notwithstanding.

— Carol Cofone


1904 The St. Regis Hotel opened by John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV
1905 Old King Cole commissioned by Astor IV
1912 Astor IV dies on the Titanic  
1932 Painting  installed in the St. Regis Hotel’s bar