- 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
“And,” my father continued, “that’s where Pyle was a master. But none of us understood it at the time.”
Soon after beginning work with Pyle, my father received commissions for magazine illustrations. Some of his earliest commercial paintings were of the West. Those of the Indians are extraordinary. In the Crystal Depths is certainly one of those—a lovely, quiet picture. The reflection, the sudsy water below the falls allow me to imagine where the canoe is drifting. Then, of course, I love the one of the three Indians sitting up on the top of the bluff, which my father considered the finest Indian picture he ever did. He once said, “That’s the true character of an Indian as I knew it.” And that picture is not overly dramatic. Indians were never dramatic; in Pa’s experience they just stood solemnly with very little expression. You see pictures of Indians in dramatic poses, but that’s baloney! Pa knew the Navajos. He was only there a short time, but he lived with them. I think he ranks right there along with Remington; far better than Russell. There is a robustness in my father’s Western works that you can’t deny.
Even with these early images my father was moving out in new directions as far as illustration was concerned. He was producing big pictures, but ones with an economy of line. They had qualities quite different from Pyle’s. And over the next fifteen years he received several important book commissions. He used a new style for almost every one. He was always groping for something new. He was experimenting in painting. But he began each book project in the same way—he read the story.
Pa’s first and foremost interest was: Is it a well-written story? Is it a vital story? What he wanted to do was to bring air into those books that had been sitting in libraries for decades. Take The Last of the Mohicans, which to me is a boring book. My father’s illustrations certainly added a luster to it. People often refer to the books Pa illustrated as “children’s classics,” but I don’t think you can call The Last of the Mohicans a child’s book. And certainly The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain is not a child’s book. Pa felt that a good story could be understood by all ages, that an illustrator shouldn’t get too complex. Since my father didn’t talk down to children, he certainly wasn’t going to paint down to them. He always believed that children were more mature than adults gave them credit for. When children wrote to him, they’d often comment about his illustrations. They’d ask, “Why did you put the bandage on so and so in one picture, but in the other picture put the blood stain on the opposite side?” He was terribly sensitive to children, and I think that’s one reason why his illustrations are so great.
After initially reading the story, especially if it was a good yarn, Pa would reread it very carefully and underline passages that he felt were the essence of the story. I remember him sometimes sitting on the porch reading manuscripts and galley proofs. Then he would turn his imagination loose. He always picked a scene that was not described very much. He once explained, “Why take a dramatic episode that is described in every detail and redo it? Instead I create something that will add to the story.” Look at Old Pew. That scene in Treasure Island isn’t completely described by Stevenson. He says that Pew is tapping along, but makes no mention of the moonlight shining on Admiral Benbow Inn. Pa added the details and the mood and created an outstanding picture. To me it’s an indelible image. The whole picture is a vignette of a keyhole: that shape of the cape, the shadow, the cane coming toward you. It’s amazing! And then you see the inn in the moonlight. I think the whole image is very strong.
Train Robbery is another remarkable picture. He painted it in one morning. At that time he was doing pictures of adventure stories for Hearst publications and he could make up any subject he wanted as long as it had to do with the West and was something with a lot of drama. He was getting us kids breakfast early and got the idea of this train robbery, went up to the studio, and just painted it like mad. It was finished by noon.
My father used his subconscious mind. All the author did was get my father’s imagination working. He believed a person should be able to walk into the bookstore and just thumb through a book and get the idea of the story by the drama of the illustrations—very quickly.