- 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 was one of his most fruitful experiences. In a relatively short time his thirsty nature had soaked up a great store of animated impressions upon which he was to draw for the rest of his life. He had been born with a gift for seeing everyday things with a magical eye. Now the gift was sharpened, practiced and automatic, and there was skill of hand behind it. The immediate result was a series of western pictures that found ready purchasers among the magazine editors. These pictures were virile, but they were subtle too. Most were painted from the warm earth-color range of the palette; the rainbow hues of the impressionists were still in the future. Wyeth was now able to project a mood, to use the fugitive effects of outdoor light to create electrifying patterns of tone. Pyle had opened his eyes to the mystery of shadows, and his own observation had taught him the dramatic effect of chance-darting shafts of sunlight.
The apprentice days were over. He was a well-rounded, practicing illustrator. Although he was still to work with Pyle for a period until he had been told he was a graduate, he had not only the admiration of his colleagues but a rising reputation in the publishing world. He felt that his father should be reimbursed for the expense of his education, and wrote him that he expected to accomplish this during the following year. He admits a certain extravagance: “Costumes and material. I have a chest of military costume that is invaluable to me and is the envy of H. P. himself.”
From the first days in Wilmington there was a steady stream of letters homeward to his parents and his brothers. Most of them have been saved. It was a closely knit family. The parents parted from the son with a pang, and he thought of them constantly. There were times when, feeling he could not bear the separation, he made the long journey to Needham.
In one of his letters to his mother is a casual mention of what was to be a major change in his life. He speaks of plans for a sleighing party and for going to church—“I met a Miss Bockius the other day and she being a Unitarian asked me to go. I accepted with pleasure.”
This was the prelude to love, complete and final. For about a year the letters home are strangely silent about it, but the young pair had to wait and plan until N. C.’s work had moved ahead another step and the bread and butter problem was solved. On the evening of April 16, 1906, Carolyn Bockius and Newell Convers Wyeth were married in the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington.
They settled in the town for a brief interval but at the first opportunity moved out into the country, to the Brandywine hills at Chadds Ford that N. C. had loved at first sight. Time after time his frequent letters to his mother expressed his deeply felt ties with the open land: “I always experience a singular, luxurious and pleasurable indolence after a rushing frenzied visit to the city and a return to this land of peace and beauty.”
These letters are an intimate chronicle of his life and work. He rode on the crest and dropped into the trough. He was sharply critical of his own work and motives and was constantly challenging himself to do better. Almost always there is a description of the weather, for his spirit was always sensitive to the changing patterns of the skies. It was second nature to him to scan the outdoors with a pictorial eye and to anticipate change on his very skin. These things were translated into his pictures. On a wintry, seven-below-zero day he writes, “I walked to Sugar Loaf in the evening and came nearer to freezing certain protruding features of my face than ever before. When I got back, my face felt like a mask I could take off and hang in the closet.”
The homely news of family life is there: Carolyn putting up Mason jars full of green beans from the garden; N. C. picking five barrels of apples—Baldwins, Northern Spys, and Winesaps; a vaudeville show, employing local talent, at Gallagher’s Hall, five cents admission. In 1907 Henriette, the first child, was born, and her baby ways are lovingly described: “May 29— 1908—The Butcher was here this morning and he weighed Henriette—19½ lbs.” A few years later:
Dear Papa: Last evening Henriette was repeating some of her nursery rhymes for the entertainment of visitors (sedate visitors at that), when she astonished us all with her powers of deduction, as follows,
I perceived in a moment that she could not remember the word chamber , so substituted what to her was the true meaning of the word as she knew it.