N. C. Wyeth

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The spreading power of a great illustrator’s work can be beyond calculation; it is an imponderable force that works in hidden ways and eludes attempts at measurement. So it certainly has been in the case of N. C. Wyeth. He was an unmistakable personality, a man of enormous energy and great talent. He possessed a breath-taking imagination, constant and grand, which he poured into a series of dynamic pictures. He illustrated most of the great children’s classics, with fire that kindled sparks in tens of thousands of young minds.

The spreading power of a great illustrator’s work can be beyond calculation; it is an imponderable force that works in hidden ways and eludes attempts at measurement. So it certainly has been in the case of N. C. Wyeth. He was an unmistakable personality, a man of enormous energy and great talent. He possessed a breath-taking imagination, constant and grand, which he poured into a series of dynamic pictures. He illustrated most of the great children’s classics, with fire that kindled sparks in tens of thousands of young minds. He created a legend which has grown steadily since his death, and, no less importantly, he sired a remarkably gifted family. Although in recent years public attention has been focussed largely on one of Wyeth’s sons, Andrew, there has been an array of strong talents working beside him, and behind them all looms the figure of the extraordinary father. Here is probably the only American family of artists which rivals that of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Peales.

Newell Convers Wyeth came out of New England, a tall, active youth with a head full of hopes, ambitions, and pictorial dreams. He was born in Needham, Massachusetts, on October 22, 1882, the son of a dealer in grains, a member of an old family which included many Harvard men; his mother was a descendant of Andrew Zirngiebel, a Swiss horticulturist who had travelled to the United States with Louis Agassiz (see “Professor of the World’s Wonders” in the February, 1961, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Young Wyeth felt that he had inherited his early passion for drawing from the Zirngiebels, and it was his mother who encouraged it.

The Wyeth acres ran down to the banks of the winding Charles River, and there were meadows, fields, and woodlands for a child to explore. The boy grew up with a sense of space and freedom. As a youngster he drew the things about him, the countryside, the water, the sports and pastimes of his brothers and playmates. When he was a little older he began to frequent the polo field at nearby Karlstein, and presently he was enjoying a local reputation for his drawings of horses. As he moved through his middle and later teens he attended first the Mechanic Arts High School, then the Massachusetts Normal Art School, and finally the Eric Pape School of Art, all in nearby Boston.

But he was reaching for a wider horizon, and his instincts were leading him to the place and the man who would ignite and focus his great gifts. In his winter studios in Wilmington, Delaware, and in his summer classes in the village of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the great illustrator Howard Pyle had created a mecca for young people who wanted to follow in his footsteps. The classes were small and hand-picked. No tuition was charged, only a small fee for model hire and incidental expenses. The competition for admission was sharp and drastic, but the result was a small company of gifted and hard-working young men and women who in a few years would leave a lasting imprint upon American illustration. It was this company which young Wyeth, at the age of twenty, hoped to join.

His first tremulous meeting with the great teacher and illustrator is best told in his own words:

"My most vivid recollection of Howard PyIc was gained during the first five minutes I knew him. He stood with his back to the blazing and crackling logs in his studio fireplace, his legs spaced apart, his arms akimbo. His towering figure seemed to lift to greater heights with the swiftly ascending smoke and sparks from the hearth behind him.

It happened on one of those blue and gold days in October. The air was sharp and keen. Moreover, it was my birthday. I was young, ambitious and impressionable. For years, it seemed, I had dreamed of this meeting. Success in winning this master’s interest and sympathy to the cause of my own artistic advancement seemed so much to ask, so remote, such a vain hope. But here I was at last, seated before him in the very room in which were born so many of the pictures I had breathlessly admired from boyhood. Paintings and drawings that had long since become a living and indispensable part of my own life.

And as Howard Pyle stood there, talking gently but with unmistakable emphasis, his large and genial countenance hypnotized me. The mobile mask of his face became more than individual. My rapid reflections were swept beyond the actual man. It was bewildering. I heard every modulation of his voice and I took note of his every word. Occasionally I would answer a question. I remember all this clearly. But a searching beyond his countenance persisted.