- 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
In the thirties Pa’s painting method had changed. He no longer sketched his idea on the canvas first. He would make a pencil drawing, a cartoon, and take it to a photographer, by the name of Sanborn, who would make a lantern slide of it. Then my father would use the slide projector to blow it up on the canvas or panel and paint it in. So his illustrating was deteriorating. He wasn’t that excited to go right at it any more. By 1940 he was awfully tied up. I think he had given his whole body and soul to these vital pictures, and God knows he produced an enormous amount. I think he was exhausted. It’s as simple as that. He didn’t think what he had done in illustration was worth a damn. One of our last talks occurred in Maine and lasted until three o’clock in the morning. I tried to make him see my point: “You know, if you had done nothing but the illustrations, the great illustrations, Pa, you’ve done it.” He felt pretty good about the Treasure Island illustrations at the time he did them. But an artist forgets the early thing; we say, “Oh, I did that as a child.”
My wife, Betsy, never cared for the things that Pa did while she knew him in the 1940s here. She felt I was a much better painter; then she saw his great illustrations. After his death, we bought Old Pew. We hung it right here in the studio. I remember the day it arrived at the Chadds Ford station. I brought it up and undid it. Oh, it was the most thundering thing to both of us. I don’t think that if he had lived for another hundred years he would ever have done any more illustrations. I think he wanted to paint, not illustrate. He still had ideas and a few tricks still up his sleeve. He wanted to do the source of a brook. That was one of his ideas. That’s a constant theme through the work. He loved brooks—the idea of the moving water going through a landscape and the way it wandered. He also loved the idea of a path. He thought a path could indicate the quality of the person, how a person walked around a rock or up a little rise and down.
He was still a keen observer of life. Just minutes before he died, here in Chadds Ford, Pa was overheard talking to Nat’s son about a man and a woman who were bundling shocks of corn: “There is something you must remember because this is something that is passing.” A year or so later, Betsy picked up the woman whom he had been watching with the corn that day and drove her to Kennett Square. She told Betsy all about how Pa stopped and brought the little boy over and showed him what she and her husband were doing and talked all about the corn. Finally he said, “Good-bye,” and returned to the car. She went back to work. About three minutes went by. They heard the train and this terrible crash. It’s so ironic he was killed so close to home. He had talked to me a year before as we walked down that railroad track and he showed me the spring where the Howard Pyle students would stop along the railroad and get water. It was still running. And a year later, in 1945, he was killed near that spot. It was October 19, the same date that he had first arrived here to study with Howard Pyle.