- 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
Pa loosed his imagination against a local backdrop. His illustrations don’t have the European flavor, even though the stories may be set in Europe. His skies are the skies of Chadds Ford. He learned a lot about a subject, but he never overdid the image. He made his scene look perfectly normal, as if it could happen today. His illustrations are amazingly simple. In Westward Ho! he shows just the glint on the guard of the sword to make you realize that it’s Spanish. The Treasure Cave! has all that gold and this figure counting it out. But look at the way those coins are painted; they’re only suggested—very freely painted. The best ones from Treasure Island have a marvelous abstract freedom and painterliness. Look at the parrot with Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in the galley. The parrot is done with a few swipes. The frying pans and skillets on the wall give you the feeling of the ship’s movement in the sea, but their back-and-forth sweep is suggested with very little detail. These are what make his illustrations so enduring and not particularly dated. Other illustrators spent a lot of time learning all the equipment and what was carried, but they never absorbed it into their bloodstreams. My father did. He made it become a part of everyday life. That’s why kids can dress up as his characters with very simple things and feel they are really there. The simple idea is actually the most complex one in the world—to absorb all the knowledge and then put it down to look like you just went swish and there it is. He got to know it so well that he could put a buckle where he wanted to and know it was right.
Throughout his life Pa acquired the buckles, the costumes, the Indian blankets and chaps, and many other props. He had trunks of costumes, but I never saw him use them on models. He may have done so in the beginning when John Weller, Pyle’s former model, posed for him. Weller came out from Wilmington after Pyle’s death and spent many weekends posing for Pa. But I don’t think Pa ever hired models for any of his great illustrations. He did use us. All of us posed. We posed for hands and feet and for portraits. But even before he had his own children, in very early pictures such as Mowing, my father often painted children, and he seemed to have a great sympathy for the form of the child; in his early illustrations, children are very natural and real. Later on, I think, they became sort of a clichè of the blond-haired child, but in those early years when he was in his top form as an illustrator, the children looked like they could be urchins, not innocent. Pa also did quite a number of self-portraits and he did himself in a stocking cap, laughing. Then he did one of himself wearing the cape and stovepipe hat that had belonged to his great-great-grandfather, a divinity teacher at Harvard. He painted himself a good deal. Here was a perfect model, and he couldn’t say, “Well, I’ve got to go home, you’ve got to stop painting, Mr. Wyeth.”
When it came time to do an illustration, Pa had an amazing ability to do the image without a model. You can’t put a model into the motion that he caught, like a man climbing over a stockade or a figure fighting in a doorway. Those things are momentary. And yet he had an amazing accuracy in his drawing. Captain Bones Routs Black Dog has very powerful and marvelous action. You couldn’t possibly catch that in a photograph, or that whole point of view. You’re looking down slightly on the scene. The strength of the hand that sweeps that cutlass and hits the Admiral Benbow sign, and then comes around and slashes into the frame of that doorway is marvelous. And in The Siege of the Round-House, that man looks like a cornered rat, and he’s stabbing at these men through the door. Look at the expression and the cutlass and dirk in his hands; sense the feeling of these people pushing their way toward him—one’s fallen and been sliced through with his cutlass. Look at those teeth, the teeth of a rat. I know that was on my father’s mind.
Some people have suggested my father didn’t paint women as well as he painted men and children. My sister Henriette thinks he painted women very poorly. I love his women, but they don’t have much passion in them. To put it very directly, I don’t think you would want to go to bed with the women he painted. His women were submissive types that were always there—the homemaker, wholesome, beautiful, but slightly removed. Now, my mother posed for many of them, and she was a very lovely person, but I don’t think he brought out her sexual quality in any of them.
In many of his paintings, the faces have a relaxed, almost deathlike quality that is extraordinary. I once asked about this. Pa said, “Andy, I’ll tell you. When my mother died, I took the train right to Needham. I got there in the late afternoon, and they had her laid in her bed upstairs. I went up and sat there with her, with that amazing face that looked like the mother of Europe. As the sun went down, studying that face lying there on that white pillow and that waxy skin...” (he was almost whispering), “it made such a deep impression on me. Andy, if you ever have a chance to be with someone you have loved, don’t hesitate to do it, because that’s the most profound quality, a head in death. It changed everything for me.”