- 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
When Pa made obvious and dramatic changes, he was reacting to specific artists. Late in his career Peter Hurd had a strong influence on him. Even I had an influence on him, and not very good. I know it was not good! But by that time my father had lost his excitement for painting. I think he had lost the vitality. He remained a terrific thinker; he was well read; he had a lot of theories, and they show in his painting late in life, right up to the end. Midway through his career, around 1920, he took time off—I think it was two years—and really did no commercial work, because he felt that he needed to paint just landscapes. But he had to get back to illustrating, because he had five children; it had become purely a commercial matter. I think that’s why he became rather jaundiced toward illustration. He recognized that he was manufacturing those things —one picture every few days to meet some tight schedule. The real charm of illustrating had disintegrated for him.
Pa was also a master at still lifes. He would set up his still lifes right in his studio, and they usually were done rather quickly. I think he felt that he needed to work from life, and I can understand that. If you work all the time from your imagination as Pa did for his illustrations, every now and then you think, “I’ve got to go out and eat a good roast beef or something.” You need to nourish yourself. Working completely from the imagination is a very draining experience. A lot of his illustrations have still lifes set off at one side. He loved them. Look at the marvelous painting of the astrologer in The Mysterious Stranger who pours the wine out of that big bowl. Now that’s a bowl that my mother used as a mixing bowl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a still life better than that bowl with that little sediment line showing the level of the wine that has been poured out.
Pa very definitely rejuvenated himself by doing landscapes. But I have very grave doubts about them. Theoretically it sounds right for him to go and paint landscapes here in Chadds Ford and Maine to enrich his ideas for illustrations. But I don’t think an artist works that way. Some artists get things right with almost no knowledge at all, much better than if they go out and search for it. Pa’s best paintings were spontaneous ideas. A concept needs the juice, the essence of the thing, more than all the theory or more knowledge. I think my father was born with an amazing capacity, like a sponge, to soak up all thoughts, ideas, and happenings—even moonlight nights as a child—and then when he finally was ready, he squeezed it out. When he painted a landscape or did a still life, those were things in his mind wholly apart from illustration. He wanted to go to the truth. We have grave doubts sometimes about our imagination and we want to check it every now and then. And you know, we shouldn’t. An imagination is a very sensitive thing. Pa’s landscapes were a kind of checking up, and I don’t think they ever lived up to his imagination; he never got the excitement out of a landscape that he got when he painted from his imagination.
Now people will say, Andrew, you’re discarding a great period, your father’s landscape painting, and I’ll grant you it is important, but to me his illustrations are a perfect portrait of N. C. Wyeth. No one else could have ever done them but him. His landscape paintings are not unique, although they’re excellent paintings, and they’re better than other people were doing at the time. But Pa had an ability to do illustrations that no one else had. I myself realized early: don’t get into illustration, Andy, you can’t compete with a man with his talents. You can’t!
My father really worked in a variety of media. He did watercolor. Some very early watercolors done when he was twelve years old are remarkable and show a lovely feeling for wash. He also did watercolors in his letters. Once in a while when we were kids, he would do a watercolor of a pirate head or something for us, always beautifully done. Pa was always excited by my interest in watercolor. But a lot of my early ones were trite drawings filled in with color; I was illustrating Robin Hood or the Three Musketeers, things like that. Then one fall day while I was out in the orchard doing an apple tree, he asked, “Andy, why don’t you really free yourself?” He sat down by me and did this watercolor, very free, of an apple tree. He didn’t pursue watercolor himself, because he felt that it wasn’t his medium. He was crazy of course. He was a master technician.