- 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
A Fight on the Plains for Buffalo Bill’s autobiography had those dead mules. I’ve read that book and I can’t find for the life of me anything described that has the slightest association with the picture. This picture came out of something that happened in the meadow below the studio. There was a storm, and a bunch of mules under a tree were struck by lightning and they were all electrocuted. My father heard about it when he went to get the mail the next day and walked over to where they were lying. He knew that they used mules a great deal on the Plains and that Buffalo Bill used them when he was hunting buffalo for the railroad. And this is where the composition came from. Notice the shafts of the Indian arrows, where they’ve actually driven into the bodies of the mules, where they’ve hit bones and where they’re broken off and snapped in two, some of them practically disappearing right up to the feathers—it’s a brutal painting, and a stunning, dramatic one. You sense Indians because of the shafts. It’s an extraordinary leap from a group of dead mules in a field to that concept. There’s more to this story though. My father gave that painting to a local man, and years later, after Pa’s death, I was able to buy the picture back. The wife of the man said to me, “You know your father had this picture two years before he died: ‘I want to clean it up,’ he said. After he had it for about a week he called my husband and said, ‘I would like you to trade this picture for a better one. I’d like to keep this to give to Buffalo Bill’s son. Would you take another picture?’ We refused because we loved the painting.” This is very interesting because Buffalo Bill never had a son. I think my father realized how good this painting was and wanted to get it back.
He soaked up thoughts, ideas, and happenings like a sponge. Then, when he was ready, he squeezed it out.
The commercial illustrations Pa did provided a relatively steady income. All those done for Treasure Island and the other early books were sold outright to publishers, and they kept them. Scribner’s sold them or gave them away. For instance, the Barrymores bought three of the Treasure Island works. Russell Colt bought the Kidnapped and The Last of the Mohicans pictures. Imagine if Pa had done the Treasure Island pictures on royalties; instead he got five thousand dollars for doing them. At that time that was a lot of money, of course. He did a few books for royalties much later. The Mysterious Stranger was done on a royalty basis and didn’t sell at all.
A lot of the very sophisticated people Pa knew were not good influences. My mother used to say that the artist William Cahill had a terrible influence on him. Cahill would come to Chadds Ford and they’d stay up all night. Their discussions would “leave Convers all stirred up.” The art critic Christian Brinton, who lived nearby, was another one. Brinton even brought down a Russian artist—whom I have never heard of since—and this man said, “N.C., you’ve got too much illustration in your painting to make good painting, and too much good painting in your illustration to make a good illustration.” My father was also much influenced by the Spanish painter Sorolla; Brinton promoted him in this country and insisted that Pa look at his work very carefully. Brinton owned a lot of Chagalls, painted before the artist was messed up by going to Paris. He showed them to my father and later sold them.
There were also a number of other people whose work influenced my father, and some of these were good influences. Winter, the Indian on the cliff and the soaring bird, owes a lot to George de Forest Brush. But it also has a robustness that Brush never possessed. Brush was a beautiful painter. I mean a beautiful technician, clean like crystal. My father was a much more earthy painter.
Although Pa didn’t think about his illustrations apart from their publications, he went to exhibitions to see Winslow Homer and Giovanni Segantini, the Alpine painter. He saw several Segantini originals in this country, one in Brooklyn and one now out in San Francisco. Those men—he knew—were painting paintings that lived on their own, not tied to a book, complete subjects, rich in subject matter and connotations, overtones and undertones of mood.
Segantini’s method shows a little in my father’s work—the way the impasto is laid on. You can see it very strongly in some of the illustrations for The Mysterious Stranger. Newborn Calf (1917) is very clearly influenced by a combination of painters, certainly by J. Alden Weir, Childe Hassam, and Segantini. But it’s even more impressionistic than Segantini; this is more like Weir or Hassam. My father was a terrific technician. I can see no flaw in his impressionist technique, but I do think it was limiting for him to work in broken color that way. He had too vital a talent for that.