- 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
This kept up for some twenty minutes until fellows dropped out from sheer exhaustion. They all dropped out but Pfeifer and I, and the battle-royal continued for five minutes under strenuous conditions. I had a broad sword and wielded it with all my might and he had a Cavalry sabre and did the same. Amid cheers and yelling we fought until by a lucky stroke I broke his sword at the hilt sending the blade with a br-r-r-r across the room. Thus ended the duel. I arose at 9:30 stiff as a board.
All this was the stuff of growing up. Wyeth was rubbing against both people and ideas, taking part in arguments, hearing new names and seeing new pictures, conceiving new admirations. We know that his first composition for Pyle was a picture of New England haying, a scene very familiar to him, and that he was becoming deeply influenced by the Pyle passion for the early American background. A third engrossing subject was the Far West of cowpunchcr, trapper, and Indian. In a letter to his parents he describes one of his subjects:
"My composition today was two boy Indians, naked, cautiously climbing up over a rock which looked over a deep black hole of water at the sharp turn of a winding brook. Everything is dark save two bright glimmers of evening sky which are shown through the dark mysterious woods which form the background. One of the Indians has a fish spear uplifted, ready to dart into the transparent water upon any trout that happens to be lurking there, the other boy by a gesture is told to keep back."
It was undoubtedly pictures of this kind that he took with him when he returned to Needham for the Christmas holidays. On his way back he stopped over in New York and visited some publishers with his portfolio. He was heartened by their reception of his work and came back with his first commission, an illustration for a magazine called Success. Not long afterward a cover sketch he submitted to the Saturday Evening Post was approved, and a few months later the finished work, a broncobuster, appeared on newsstands across the country. Pyle had told him that his period of trial was over; he was a full-fledged member of the HPSA (Howard Pyle School of Art), and its gold and red button was in his lapel. He left the studio he had shared with Hoyt and moved in with Stanley Arthurs and Frank Schoonover in one of the two studio-buildings Pyle had built on Franklin Street adjacent to his own. From there could be glimpsed the encroaching city to the east and at a little distance the retreating countryside in the west. [These buildings are still used, the old Pyle studio by an active group of women artists and the two students’ studios by individual artists.]
Pyle at this point seemed apprehensive about his new pupil’s early successes, and for a time Wyeth submitted to the discipline of drawing from the cast and the figure, making no more forays in search of illustrative work. Perhaps he was rushing ahead into professional life before the foundations were all secure. And PyIe put his faith in sturdy foundations.
This was a grind, monotonous to N. C.’s impulsive nature, but he gritted his teeth and slaved away. At last the ban was lifted and he could go back to painting the teasing images with which his mind was bursting. More commissions began to come in, and he was able to send some money back home and to save a little. These were happy days he always remembered —the daylight hours crammed with work (with occasional spurts of reckless fun), the relaxation of tension as the skylight above darkened, the listening for the soft thud of the master’s door and the rustle of his sleeve on the ivy, his cheerful entrance, the talk spurred by the mood of the moment, of pictures, people, history, the events of the day, or often enough by the teachings of the mystic Swedenborg. Pyle spoke from a full mind and fluently, picturesquely. His talk seems to have seldom been repetitious; it was free from clichés and rich in examples that would be meaningful to picture-making minds. These conversations at dusk could last a few minutes or an hour; sometimes Pyle’s footsteps went past the studio door without pausing; when he stopped to talk, it was an extra bonus, hoped for but unpredictable.
Like hundreds of other young artists, N. C. found himself making pictures of a frontier West he had never seen. He had learned what he could from the work of Remington, Russell, Catlin, and others who had made the West their own province, but he craved to scrutinize it with his own eyes. With some meager savings he managed it. He left for Colorado and a ranch where he was able to take part in a roundup and in the hundred and one chores of cattle raising, spending day after day in the saddle, absorbing the look and feel of new horizons, shapes, and sounds. From there he went south to the Navaho reservations in New Mexico, helping to pay his way by acting as a mail-rider. He came back with his head crammed with impressions and his portfolio filled with drawings.