- Historic Sites
The distinguished artist talks intimately about the art, the emotions, and the unique talent of his illustrator father, Newell Convers Wyeth
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
He had other sides to him also. He was a man who admired many arts- literary, dramatic, musical. From being hardly a reader at all in his youth, he had become a constant reader. He had a remarkable talent for writing. My mother’s mother got him reading Thoreau. He also read Tolstoy. And he loved Robert Frost, Keats, Emily Dickinson. He went to see O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and talked about it many, many times. He loved music; on Sundays after dinner we kids would lie on the floor and listen to it. He loved Rembrandt. He admired the artist George de Forest Brush and mentioned him often to me. He was a complex man in many ways.
I grew up and became mature under him. He had a marvelous way of never talking down to a young person. And I spent a lot of time with my father—much more than the rest of the children. When I was a child I’d go out into the back room of the studio where he kept his drawings and paintings and many reproductions. Often I’d drag them out, wipe the dust off, and ask him about them. He told me so many things about these pictures that I got a pretty thorough knowledge of what he had done. I also spent hours in his studio going through his books of medieval armor and his historical books, and trying on costumes that he stored in his big chests. I was able to spend the time because I wasn’t going to school: I was being tutored at home by my father in a very direct way. I feel very lucky.
My father’s life as an illustrator revolved around children; yet he did not pamper us in any way. He loved our imagination, and it excited him, so our Christmases and Easters and Valentine Days meant a great deal. And although he was a born illustrator for children, his works elevated the level of illustration. I think this is the thing that bothered the social or literary people about my father’s illustrations. I remember someone said to me—probably the collector Philip Hofer—"Your father’s illustrations are really paintings. They jump out of the pages and in a certain way ruin the looks of the book. They don’t fit. When you see the originals and discover the size of them—and then you think of Arthur Rackham, whose images are all tiny—you realize that your father painted on the barn-door scale.” Pa lifted illustration into something it had never been before. He transformed it.
Pa believed his artistic talents and literary interests were the contribution of his mother’s Swiss-French heritage. He was doing watercolors by the age of twelve, working with a local woman, Cora Livingston, who lived down the street in Needham, Massachusetts. When he was about to turn twenty, in 1902, he traveled to Wilmington, Delaware, with hopes of being accepted as a student by Howard Pyle.
My father learned astoundingly fast under Pyle. He just tore through the training and was off.
Illustration was already in my father s soul; all he really needed was the technical training. It’s astounding how quickly he learned to paint under Pyle; he just tore through the training and was off. Pyle taught him the essence of drama. The style was pretty much my father’s, so only a few pictures show the strong influence of Pyle. (In fact, Pyle touched only one of my father’s pictures—The Hunter . He touched up the feathers on the goose and sensed that Pa didn’t like him doing it.)
After learning Pyle’s technique of theatrical drama, Pa added the moods from his place in Needham and worked from his imagination. His talent, his technical ability, his painterliness exploded. The difference between what my father was doing in Massachusetts—as fine as it was—and what he did only a few months later in Wilmington is so extraordinary that you look for a reason why. I think Pyle was a magnificent teacher. My father thought so too. He often remembered Pyle saying things that his students were incapable of understanding at their age. For one class a student did a picture of a meetinghouse. It showed the Quakers sitting and thinking, heads bowed, as they do before some of them stand up and speak. Pa recalled, “Pyle looked at it and remarked, ‘Well, that’s a very good graphic picture of what takes place in a Quaker meeting. But, listen, in my experience at Quaker meetings —and I went to many of them as a child, and many of them bored me—the thing that I remember the most, which to me is the essence, is looking out the window and seeing a horse tethered at his carriage, his head moving up and down, and a sultry, misty landscape beyond.’ That idea conveyed more of the quietness of the meetinghouse than did the picture of all those people sitting around.
“And,” my father continued, “that’s where Pyle was a master. But none of us understood it at the time.”