- Historic Sites
N. C. Wyeth
The great illustrator found giants in clouds and inspiration in the classics of fiction and history. And, like old Charles Willson Peale, he founded and trained a dynasty of fine artists
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
The soft top-light from the glass roof high above us poured down like a magical and illuminated mist over his magnificent head…the entire countenance became majestically severe, forcclul, unrelenting. The recollection of the masks of Beethoven, Washington, Goethe, Keats, passed in swift succession before my vision and in a sudden grasp of lhe truth I realized that the artist’s face before me was actually a living composite of the men of history and romance which he had so magically and dramatically perpetuated on canvas."
Wyeth came from that interview walking on air. He had been complimented and accepted as a student on trial. Later he said that Pyle had told him that “although my work showed promise and was practical, he sternly emphasized that hard work, constantly applied, and the living of a simple life were the two things that would bring about my making.” Coming down to earth, Wyeth found a studio to share with a fellow student, Philip Hoyt, for a dollar a week. His room cost him two dollars and his board four; thirty dollars a month might be stretched to cover everything—paradise for a dollar a day!
Wilmington at the turn of the century still had the air of a family town—the family, of course, being the Du Ponts—teetering on the brink of expansion into an industrial city. There was a flavor of the colonial and federal, with later Victorian and eclectic additions. The countryside was close in, easy for healthy limbs to reach. And Chadds Ford, where Pyle and the class summered, was about twelve miles out along the meadows of Brandywine Creek, with the tilled fields and wooded slopes curving up the enclosing hills. N. C. had an instant sense of familiarity, as though he had come back to something he had always known.
He had found his home and artistic climate and a soil into which he could sink his roots. The region’s early settlements, its Revolutionary battlefield, its stone houses and churning mills, its wagon roads up into the Pennsylvania German country—with all these old and eternal things Pyle and his eager disciples established a rapport, and with it went a bright expectancy that the valley would open a door into an empire of the imagination. It was all rolled up into a single phrase: “the Brandywine tradition.”
The intoxication was shared by even the least of the Pyle class; N. C. it filled to the brim. Pyle, who had a canny gift for probing beneath the surface, had been able to read past the young candidate’s drawings into the leashed power and pictorial drama dammed up inside him. He could offer direction and discipline to his students, but first he would build a fire in them that might light them through life. He could not drive all up to his own level, but even the least responsive carried away a lasting glow.
The core of Pyle’s instruction was a weekly composition class in which each student submitted an original picture for discussion and evaluation. Pyle was adept at clarifying muddled thoughts and opening a path to simplified and emphatic expression. He goaded his pupils with such exclamations as “Live in your picture! Throw your heart into the canvas and leap in after it!” This was thrilling doctrine for N. C., and after the first lecture he wrote to his mother: “The composition lecture lasted two hours and it opened my eyes more than any talk I ever heard.”
Communion and competition with sharp young rivals (among whom were George Harding, Thornton Oakley, Frank Schoonover, Stanley Arthurs, Clifford Ashlry, and Sidney Chase, all destined to become noted illustrators or painters); the incentive of satisfying an inspiring, understanding, but demanding master; the spur of new sights, sounds, and smells; all liberated the pent-up energy of a strong body and darting mind. In this apprentice time Wyeth grew like corn in the night. But not all the hours were spent at the easel. His explosive muscles and exuberant nature had to have their say in other ways: games and horseplay, long walks exploring the countryside, riding and canoeing, skating and sleighing, pranks and practical jokes. Once the group acquired a transit and other surveyor’s equipment and, suitably dressed for their hoax, moved out into one of Wilmington's busy intersections and held up traffic for many impatient minutes. At the appearance of a policeman all slipped away.
Then there was the celebration of Howard Pyle’s fiftieth birthday with an ambitious medieval banquet. The students, nearly a score of them, dressed as favorite Pyle characters, Wyeth as Little John. After a hilarious and noisy evening of eating, drinking, speeches, and parades, and with the departure of the guest of honor at eleven-thirty, suddenly, in Wyeth’s words, Unbeknown to me as to how it started there was a rush and crash and two bodies of fellows clashed together, about nine on a side, each wielding a huge sword striking to right and left. Every light was extinguished and one could see nothing but continual scatterings and sunbursts of sparks caused by the clashing steel. Beckcr’s sword was wrenched from his grasp and hurled through a window followed quickly by Ashley’s.