- 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
Twenty years later, in 1945, my father was killed in an accident. I arrived from Maine the next afternoon. I didn’t stop to say anything. I took the car up to Birmingham Meeting and I sat there in that meetinghouse where he and Newell, my brother Nat’s three-year-old son, lay. I will never forget that scene and the dry leaves blowing in late October. I remembered what my father said. He was so right. Their faces had become masks of eternity. I couldn’t have taken the funeral the next day if I hadn’t done that. That afternoon with them just raised my spirit so that I was sort of hovering above. It sounds a little melodramatic now, but my entire point of view was looking down on the whole thing.
Death of Edwin (1921) from The Scottish Chiefs is one of Pa’s magical illustrations of death; the composition has moonlight striking on the head and shoulders and breast of young Edwin, who has just been pierced by a shaft from the British archers, and as Sir William Wallace bends, the light catches on his hand, a hand that is beautifully painted. The whole composition is stunning. And I think this is the essence of what he learned sitting by his mother when she was dead.
The Passing of Robin Hood (from Robin Hood, 1917) has that same quality of death beautifully expressed in the head and the hands that clench the bow, as if death has already moved into him. Late-afternoon sun hitting the wall seems to move up slowly as the sun goes down. Lovely simplicity in it. You only sense the heavy woods outside this monastery. With this pale figure clenching the bow and then those two stalwart friends in back of him, both weeping, it’s quite a moving picture and very contemporary, strangely enough. The room is like the inside of my father’s home.
Pa’s memories of Needham and the house that he built in Chadds Ford provided settings—all kinds of elements and settings for his work. In Ben Gunn, from Treasure Island, the pine tree was in a section of woods right across from his home in Needham—a stand of enormous pines and uneven ferns. And that’s really what was painted; although it was done from his memory. And the Admiral Benbow Inn in Old Pew is his family home in Needham. King Arthur’s tales are another example of Chadds Ford scenery. Look at that little landscape in the background of It Hung upon a Thorn.” That could be back over the hills here in Chadds Ford, looking down a dirt road and out across the fields. They Fought with Him Three Hours is a marvelous piece of landscape painting and an unusual picture for Pa in terms of design. And of all the King Arthur pictures it made the greatest impression on me as a child. The only other pictures I’d seen of medieval knights were like Howard Pyle’s with a castle in the distance and a romanticized landscape. But this picture shows the landscape I knew as a boy—and men in armor are fighting on it! The picture is unusual in other respects too. When I saw the original again recently, I was kind of shocked by it. The group of figures is very complex, and there is something terribly truthful about that picture to me. The feeling of dead walnut trees with bark coming off is fascinating. And the verticality of that picture is unique. It’s a rare portrait landscape.
My father often talked of the sea in his early letters. It was in his background and crept into his paintings. The Wreck of the “Covenant” conveys the marvelous feeling of nighttime, a rolling sea and a beautifully expressed wetness. The light on those sails and that lamp on the stern of that ship is beautiful. Another example is On the Island of Erraid, the boy in the fog among the rocks. Pa painted the sea so well in that picture, and years later, of course, he painted many sea pictures from life in Maine, but I don’t think any of his later pictures compare to this.
Even Pa’s animals are outstanding in his illustrations. He could do a horse on its back, flying through the air, or in any position you’d want. I asked him once, “How did you learn to do a horse in so many positions without a model and make it really alive?” He said, “Well, I’ll tell you. On the roundup I had the chance to cut up a horse that had died. I’ll never forget the anatomy of a horse.”