The distinguished artist talks intimately about the art, the emotions, and the unique talent of his illustrator father, Newell Convers Wyeth
He had other sides to him also. He was a man who admired many arts—literary, dramatic, musical. From being hardly a reader at all in his youth, he had become a constant reader. He had a remarkable talent for writing. My mother’s mother got him reading Thoreau. He also read Tolstoy. And he loved Robert Frost, Keats, Emily Dickinson. He went to see O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and talked about it many, many times. He loved music; on Sundays after dinner we kids would lie on the floor and listen to it. He loved Rembrandt. He admired the artist George de Forest Brush and mentioned him often to me. He was a complex man in many ways.
I grew up and became mature under him. He had a marvelous way of never talking down to a young person. And I spent a lot of time with my father—much more than the rest of the children. When I was a child I’d go out into the back room of the studio where he kept his drawings and paintings and many reproductions. Often I’d drag them out, wipe the dust off, and ask him about them. He told me so many things about these pictures that I got a pretty thorough knowledge of what he had done. I also spent hours in his studio going through his books of medieval armor and his historical books, and trying on costumes that he stored in his big chests. I was able to spend the time because I wasn’t going to school: I was being tutored at home by my father in a very direct way. I feel very lucky.
My father’s life as an illustrator revolved around children; yet he did not pamper us in any way. He loved our imagination, and it excited him, so our Christmases and Easters and Valentine Days meant a great deal. And although he was a born illustrator for children, his works elevated the level of illustration. I think this is the thing that bothered the social or literary people about my father’s illustrations. I remember someone said to me—probably the collector Philip Hofer—"Your father’s illustrations are really paintings. They jump out of the pages and in a certain way ruin the looks of the book. They don’t fit. When you see the originals and discover the size of them—and then you think of Arthur Rackham, whose images are all tiny—you realize that your father painted on the barn-door scale.” Pa lifted illustration into something it had never been before. He transformed it.
Pa believed his artistic talents and literary interests were the contribution of his mother’s Swiss-French heritage. He was doing watercolors by the age of twelve, working with a local woman, Cora Livingston, who lived down the street in Needham, Massachusetts. When he was about to turn twenty, in 1902, he traveled to Wilmington, Delaware, with hopes of being accepted as a student by Howard Pyle.
Illustration was already in my father s soul; all he really needed was the technical training. It’s astounding how quickly he learned to paint under Pyle; he just tore through the training and was off. Pyle taught him the essence of drama. The style was pretty much my father’s, so only a few pictures show the strong influence of Pyle. (In fact, Pyle touched only one of my father’s pictures—The Hunter. He touched up the feathers on the goose and sensed that Pa didn’t like him doing it.)
After learning Pyle’s technique of theatrical drama, Pa added the moods from his place in Needham and worked from his imagination. His talent, his technical ability, his painterliness exploded. The difference between what my father was doing in Massachusetts—as fine as it was—and what he did only a few months later in Wilmington is so extraordinary that you look for a reason why. I think Pyle was a magnificent teacher. My father thought so too. He often remembered Pyle saying things that his students were incapable of understanding at their age. For one class a student did a picture of a meetinghouse. It showed the Quakers sitting and thinking, heads bowed, as they do before some of them stand up and speak. Pa recalled, “Pyle looked at it and remarked, ‘Well, that’s a very good graphic picture of what takes place in a Quaker meeting. But, listen, in my experience at Quaker meetings —and I went to many of them as a child, and many of them bored me—the thing that I remember the most, which to me is the essence, is looking out the window and seeing a horse tethered at his carriage, his head moving up and down, and a sultry, misty landscape beyond.’ That idea conveyed more of the quietness of the meetinghouse than did the picture of all those people sitting around.
“And,” my father continued, “that’s where Pyle was a master. But none of us understood it at the time.”
Soon after beginning work with Pyle, my father received commissions for magazine illustrations. Some of his earliest commercial paintings were of the West. Those of the Indians are extraordinary. In the Crystal Depths is certainly one of those—a lovely, quiet picture. The reflection, the sudsy water below the falls allow me to imagine where the canoe is drifting. Then, of course, I love the one of the three Indians sitting up on the top of the bluff, which my father considered the finest Indian picture he ever did. He once said, “That’s the true character of an Indian as I knew it.” And that picture is not overly dramatic. Indians were never dramatic; in Pa’s experience they just stood solemnly with very little expression. You see pictures of Indians in dramatic poses, but that’s baloney! Pa knew the Navajos. He was only there a short time, but he lived with them. I think he ranks right there along with Remington; far better than Russell. There is a robustness in my father’s Western works that you can’t deny.
Even with these early images my father was moving out in new directions as far as illustration was concerned. He was producing big pictures, but ones with an economy of line. They had qualities quite different from Pyle’s. And over the next fifteen years he received several important book commissions. He used a new style for almost every one. He was always groping for something new. He was experimenting in painting. But he began each book project in the same way—he read the story.
Pa’s first and foremost interest was: Is it a well-written story? Is it a vital story? What he wanted to do was to bring air into those books that had been sitting in libraries for decades. Take The Last of the Mohicans, which to me is a boring book. My father’s illustrations certainly added a luster to it. People often refer to the books Pa illustrated as “children’s classics,” but I don’t think you can call The Last of the Mohicans a child’s book. And certainly The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain is not a child’s book. Pa felt that a good story could be understood by all ages, that an illustrator shouldn’t get too complex. Since my father didn’t talk down to children, he certainly wasn’t going to paint down to them. He always believed that children were more mature than adults gave them credit for. When children wrote to him, they’d often comment about his illustrations. They’d ask, “Why did you put the bandage on so and so in one picture, but in the other picture put the blood stain on the opposite side?” He was terribly sensitive to children, and I think that’s one reason why his illustrations are so great.
After initially reading the story, especially if it was a good yarn, Pa would reread it very carefully and underline passages that he felt were the essence of the story. I remember him sometimes sitting on the porch reading manuscripts and galley proofs. Then he would turn his imagination loose. He always picked a scene that was not described very much. He once explained, “Why take a dramatic episode that is described in every detail and redo it? Instead I create something that will add to the story.” Look at Old Pew. That scene in Treasure Island isn’t completely described by Stevenson. He says that Pew is tapping along, but makes no mention of the moonlight shining on Admiral Benbow Inn. Pa added the details and the mood and created an outstanding picture. To me it’s an indelible image. The whole picture is a vignette of a keyhole: that shape of the cape, the shadow, the cane coming toward you. It’s amazing! And then you see the inn in the moonlight. I think the whole image is very strong.
Train Robbery is another remarkable picture. He painted it in one morning. At that time he was doing pictures of adventure stories for Hearst publications and he could make up any subject he wanted as long as it had to do with the West and was something with a lot of drama. He was getting us kids breakfast early and got the idea of this train robbery, went up to the studio, and just painted it like mad. It was finished by noon.
My father used his subconscious mind. All the author did was get my father’s imagination working. He believed a person should be able to walk into the bookstore and just thumb through a book and get the idea of the story by the drama of the illustrations—very quickly.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Pa rarely worked in pen and ink. I always liked his pen drawings for Rip Van Winkle and The Mysterious Island—they had great quality. But he dismissed them saying, “No, Andy, they’re pencil drawings rendered in ink. You have a feeling for pen and ink. I don’t.” That’s why he got me to do all of those pen-and-ink drawings in Men of Concord and the Hornblower series for him. The publisher never knew.
His use of charcoal is fascinating. It comes through the oil. When he did his early illustrations, he quickly drew them right on the canvas in charcoal, marvelous drawings with rich blacks. Then he would start right in with his oil, with glazes, and you could see his thumb marks and other things building these up.
He used glazing a good deal and, of course, in the little self-portrait of 1913 it’s very beautifully done. He probably learned glazing from Pyle. He used it in many illustrations, and some of those have a wonderful transparency.
Because Pa understood technique, he could teach others too. He had only a few students, John McCoy, Peter Hurd, my sisters Henriette and Carolyn, and me—but not many others. I think he taught because they happened to be around. He wasn’t seeking students. He taught Peter Hurd because he came here and Pa liked him, and, of course, Peter fell in love with my sister Henriette. I would never say that teaching was an important facet of Pa’s life, although I think he was a great teacher. When it came to cast drawings, his other students never did any. But we kids were something different. We did them. My sister Carolyn is the best charcoal artist that ever lived, no doubt about that. And he made me study in charcoal. I was never very good, but I did study a lot of it. He sent Henriette to the Museum School in Boston because he thought she was beyond him.
Pa was my only teacher. He taught me watercolors and oils. I remember one day when I was working in oil, doing a head of a man in strong light, and I started to get a lot of half-lights in the shadow side, reflected light. And he said, “You know, Andy, you’ve started out well, but you’ve lost your simplicity.” He took his finger and he put it in some raw sienna, and using his thumb just simplified that whole shadow. He made it sing. That’s the painterliness that you find in pictures for Treasure Island and Kidnapped and in Mowing. Another time, I was drawing an illustration. I guess I was about eighteen, and the image was of this man leaping out of a tree onto a man below. It was to be the perspective of looking down on the figure who was looking up and being leapt on. My father said, “You’ll have to get a model for this, but you want to get this feeling,” and he quickly made a drawing of the figure looking up with his hands out, startled by this figure falling. It was a marvelous little drawing. Then I got a model and had him stand below me in that position as I got up in a tree. My father’s drawing was absolutely accurate! But far better than that because it had an expression and expressiveness.
I always showed him my work, but not until it was finished. Once I started to work, I came as far as I could and then I’d have him come down and look at it. I showed him Soaring in 1942, three years before his death. He thought it was terrible. “Andy, that doesn’t work. That’s not a painting.” So I put it in the cellar. It was there for six years. My sons set up a train on the back of it. If you look at the picture now, turn it over; it has track marks on it. Lincoln Kirstein saved it: I was having a show in New York in 1950, and he asked, “Andy, have you showed me everything for this show? Have you forgotten anything?” I replied, “There’s one in the cellar.” So, we hauled it out, covered with dust. Lincoln said it was terrific. “Fix it up.” I fixed it up. Maybe Pa was right. Maybe it doesn’t work, but it’s interesting. It doesn’t have much color. It’s vacant. Pa didn’t like that. He once said, “Andy, you’ve got to get color in your pictures.” There’s a lot of color, even in his winter paintings. Oh, did we have arguments over that, we really did. I tried to explain, “I don’t see this country in the winter that way.”
The nineteen twenties and thirties were a very social period. My father enjoyed it. We kids never knew who was coming—I mean they were always driving in with these enormous cars. I remember Scott Fitzgerald in a touring car with all these big straw hats, and, oh, we kids had a great time with that. The Great Gatsby, right here!
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.