- 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
One by one the other children enter the chronicle and grow up in their individual ways under our eyes: Carolyn—1909; Nathaniel—1911; Ann—1915; and Andrew—1917. They gave their father an additional excuse for dressing up, masquerading, play-acting. HaIloween, Christmas, and any other plausible time would produce a dramatic, fun-filled effort. There was a great variety of Old Kris Kringles over the years, even to one that climbed to a chimney on a slippery roof with almost tragic results. Another time Wyeth suddenly appeared before his children spangled and glowing with strings of small Christmas-tree bulbs draped over his costume. The family came to expect the unexpected. The whole pageantry of Christmas seemed to stem from N. C.’s mother and her Swiss forebears. The impulse to dress up is now an ingrained family trait that breaks out at Halloween or whenever the spirit moves.
The whole family was accustomed to being called upon to pose. Mrs. Wyeth grasping a Kentucky rifle could be converted into a lantern-jawed frontiersman with a few flicks of the brush and the ready Wyeth imagination. The children, at every stage of their growth, figured in their father’s pictures. Ann recalls posing dutifully while listening to young Andy’s carefree hi-yipping outside the studio windows. With the pose over, there was the walk with father down the road to Gallagher’s store and the reward of a bag of chocolate-covered marshmallows.
Except for a temporary move back to his parents’ house in Needham, from 1921 to 1923, while N. C. worked on some Boston murals and illustrations, Wyeth and his growing family remained in Chadds Ford, where he built a large, comfortable house on a hillside looking down on fields and the Baltimore Pike. Above the house, on the very top of the hill, was the studio. He was famous now. Work poured in. He could afford to refuse undesirable commissions.
Almost every year he painted a set of illustrations for one of the classics: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Black Arrow, Westward Ho!, The Mysterious Island, The Last of the Mohicans, The White Company, and a long list of other familiar titles. Scribner’s paid him several thousand dollars for the Treasure Island pictures. He leapt at the chance to picture Parkman’s Oregon Trail, for two of his ancestors had ridden a wagon train across the prairies and mountains to the coast. Most of the important magazines were pressing commissions upon him: Scribner’s, Harper’s, Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Country Gentleman, Metropolitan, American, and others.
Many of his illustrations were painted in two or three days. His mind seized quickly upon a problem, his emotions rose to a peak of creation, and his painter’s hand worked with resourcefulness and authority. Like all ranking artists, he had a brain in his fingers. His drive and facility were the admiration and envy of others in the field. One of them, Thornton Oakley, wrote, “I am in despair over my own work when I see how easily and fluently Convers works on his pictures.”
Once, in an introspective mood, N. C. analyzed his own working methods: “I seem to do my painting subconsciously, for every moment before my canvas my mind is occupied with all manner of things—unless the picture is giving me trouble—then I can think of nothing else. There is nothing extraordinary about this—it is not only common to most, it is the only way fluent work can be done.”
Yet with all this flood of commissions he still found time to roam the fields with his sketching materials and to paint a succession of large easel pictures—figure pieces and landscapes. His paintings were being widely exhibited and greatly admired, but there were always the doctrinaire critics who used the word “illustrator” as a denigrating label. N. C. was too busy to enter into controversy, but he resented the artificial bar between painter and illustrator. Both, he believed, are artists engaged in pictorial communication. Both should be measured by the degree of their talents, not by the compartments contrived by the critics. He looked down the long perspective of the pictorial arts and found the illustrative element strong in the work of the masters, from Giotto to Rembrandt, Brueghel to Delacroix, Michelangelo to William Blake, Dürer to Daumier. If that element had sadly deteriorated into listless anecdotalism at the hands of some Victorian painters, that was a failure of talent, not principle. Modern art in fleeing from this lamentable listlessness was rushing toward an opposite weakness, banishment of all narrative power and representation of the visible world.
The thriving school of American landscape painting interested Wyeth vitally, particularly the Delaware River group clustered not many miles away near New Hope, Pennsylvania. He admired the work of Edward Redfield, William Lathrop, Daniel Garber, Morgan Colt, Robert Spencer, and others who had learned the language of French impressionism and were using it to tell the brisker and more rugged story of America’s countryside. The dancing colors of impressionism crept into Wyeth’s own palette, though the earth colors were not banished. The tonal range was heightened; air and light scintillated through the canvases. The reproductions of some of his later illustrations disappointed Wyeth: some of his intense hues were beyond the skill of the platemakers.