- 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
His painting hand had always craved size, elbowroom, and his original illustrations were usually about as large as feasible for a picture destined to be reduced to the size of a magazine or book page. But the ample wall areas of a mural decoration sent his imagination racing. He had an opportunity to paint a panel of an Indian hunt for a hotel in Utica, New York. With this experience behind him he was able to tackle with confidence larger projects like the two Civil War lunettes for the Missouri state capitol, a set of five upright panels on the theme of maritime commerce for the First National Bank of Boston, and two decorations for the Federal Reserve Bank in the same city. Many others followed: five panels in the Hubbard Memorial Building of the National Geographic Society in Washington; a large mural in the Franklin Savings Bank in New York; panels in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, New York, the Wilmington Savings Fund Society, and the First Mechanics National Bank of Trenton, New Jersey; and a triptych for the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the National Cathedral in Washington.
For Wyeth those were prime years. His great strength and energy were undiminished. (He could still hold two full milk cans out at arms’ length.) His eye and mind were as hungry as ever. He usually rose at dawn and fortified himself with two or three grapefruit halves, a high pile of hot cakes, and four or five eggs. Often Ann was his only breakfast companion. When she occasionally showed interest in more modest fare he would say in wonderment, “My, you’re a picky eaterl”
Sometimes, after a hard day’s work at the easel, he would come down the darkening path from the studio, stretching his arms and saying, “I wish the day was just starting.”
At the easel, he was always moving—retreating to get a more appraising view, advancing to place a firm, fluent brush stroke. Often the Victrola would be playing a Beethoven or Sibelius record. Young Andy, painting or drawing in the lower studio, would hear his tramp, tramp all day long. If it ceased for a while, that might presage a visit and a criticism. He never held any formal classes, as Pyle had, although there were many who came asking for criticism and advice, but a small art school had spontaneously recruited itself from his own family circle: Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew, and his two future sons-in-law, Peter Hurd and John McCoy. Young Ann Wyeth was encouraged in her music, and downstairs in the basement workshop, visitors were taken to see the accomplished locomotive and ship models of Nathaniel. Daughters Henriette and Carolyn were put through concentrated drills drawing from cast and still life and then from the human model, which seems like the traditional art school routine, but fortunately they were witnesses at the same time of the long parade of their father’s canvases, in every stage of the task—constant reminders of the goal of their daily drills. By the time young Andy was working in the studio the drills were relaxed; he was allowed to draw and paint as he wished—landscapes, model studies, imagined compositions of medieval knights, Revolutionary soldiers, ships, animals—anything that moved him. John McCoy, who worked with Andy in a studio just below the elder Wyeth’s, says, “N. C. didn’t talk much about ways and means but he opened my eyes to art as a way of living, a life-long commitment.”
There were frequent guests in the studio and at the dinner table, old friends and new friends drawn by Wyeth’s pictures and personality. There was constant good conversation. N. C. liked to yarn with his neighbors at the post office or in Gallagher’s store. He walked the fields and hills, following the seasons. At the family’s summer home near Port Clyde, Maine, he loved to collect Down East stories, which he would relate with a Maine twang to any listening ear.
The nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties were the years of full tide. Book and magazine illustrations, murals, and easel pictures came without pause from the studio on the hill. These pictures can be studied and appraised one by one, but the individual verdicts are relatively unimportant. It is the tide itself that must be felt and seen and its far-reaching fingers followed as they touch new eyes and minds. Then, on the morning of October 19, 1945, as Wyeth was driving with a young grandson, his station wagon stalled at a grade crossing near Chadds Ford, in the path of a westbound freight. The creative tide was suddenly, tragically, stemmed.
But it still reaches out. The long series of children’s classices went into homes across the nation and fed thousands of young minds of all ages. They are the kind of books that are worn with repeated rapt handling and saved from generation to generation. Most of them are still in print and find a fresh audience every year. They have helped to build an image of romance and wonder, of men and events larger than ordinary life. They have helped to color and define the American spirit. Of course, wonder and romance are the stuff of youth, but the need for them grows greater than ever as a more cynical age tends to drive them under cover.