My first encounter with N.C. Wyeth came when I was about 10 and one of my aunts gave me hand-me-down copies of the big, black-bound Scribner Classic editions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Black Arrow, and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island.
Wyeth’s illustrations for these books struck my pre-adolescent eye as very old-fashioned. For one thing, there weren’t many of them. Also, they did not necessarily illustrate the major events of the book, but instead were inspired by sentences you might miss if you were reading, as I was, for plot and excitement.
Still, I began to see, over time, a rightness about the illustrations. And when I re-encountered Verne’s white-bearded Captain Nemo at the Brandywine River Museum of Art’s show “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” (opening to the public June 22), it was like finding an old though strange friend. Depicted in front of a wall hanging that’s decorated with a peacock and flowers, he looks just like the kind of man who would have a pipe organ on his submarine.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Wyeth had been one of the chief creators of American visual culture in the first half of the 20th century, especially in books, magazines, and advertising. And although Wyeth was successful more or less from the moment he began offering his services as an illustrator, the Scribner Classics really were his breakthrough.
Indeed, with the money he received in 1911 for the first of them, Treasure Island, he bought some land in Chadds Ford and built a house and a gracious free-standing studio with a big Palladian window. There, Wyeth raised a large and eccentric family that has more than its share of artists. Others had a hand in packaging the Brandywine experience, but Newell Conyers Wyeth (1882-1945) willed it into being.
In this context, Wyeth’s great rendering of the scene in Treasure Island in which young Jim leaves his weeping mother and the sun-dappled house they shared and walks out into a dark new world of experience is especially poignant.
Wyeth’s life was intensely focused on three rural places: Chadds Ford; his home town of Needham Mass.; and Port Clyde, Maine, where he spent his summers. He was obsessed with his family, writing hundreds of letters to his mother and attempting to keep his children under his control well into adulthood. And he used the money he made drawing adventure stories to create his own rural realm, where he was king.
You need to go places to have adventures, but N.C. Wyeth hardly ever left home. He painted scenes from World War I in his studio, never going overseas. At the insistence of his teacher Howard Pyle he did spend some time in the American West, seemingly in preparation for a career of painting cowboys and Indians.
When he painted King Arthur and his knights, Wyeth showed them in Brandywine settings identical to those he used in his landscape paintings.
This summer’s show, organized by the Brandywine and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, is billed as the first in half a century to look at the elder Wyeth’s work. Still, if you have visited the Brandywine over the years, you have probably seen many of the 71 pieces here.
About a quarter are from the Brandywine’s collection, another quarter are lent by the Wyeth family and sometimes on display at the Brandywine, and half are from other museums and private collections.
Earlier Americans encountered Wyeth’s work without really meaning to, on magazine covers, advertising posters, books, and even dishes and glassware. He also created corporate murals for public spaces, including the colossal Apotheosis of the Family (1931) that long dominated the main office of WSFS Bank in Wilmington.
Its setting seems to be some hybrid of Eden, Arcadia, and Chadds Ford, and if you are patient you can find allusions to artists from Durer to Matisse. It is not entirely clear what it is supposed to mean. Wyeth seems mostly to be monumentalizing himself and his family. A small version of it, made to win the approval of the bank’s board, is in the show. It is more than 16 feet wide and four feet high.
Despite his immense commercial success, Wyeth lamented that he was not really seen as an artist. Now that he has disappeared from popular culture, we see his work on gallery walls as he wished. This show invites us to see all the work, from paintings he did to sell Cream of Wheat, to his meditations on the Brandywine and coastal Maine places that he loved, as works of art.
Wyeth’s works destined for publication were tailored to the technology of reproduction as well as to the demands of storytelling. Those made to be seen in person as works of art are far more varied.
Some have scratchy or striated surfaces, and they experiment with a variety of styles. He dabbled in Impressionism and Soviet constructivism and sometimes channeled such contemporaries as Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper. September Afternoon (1916), a pastoral scene of cows viewed across a creek, looks quite conventional when reproduced. But in the gallery, its painting technique of billowing parallel lines makes it pulse almost like a van Gogh.
Wyeth’s technique is staggering, and he was constantly experimenting. When, in 1939, he received his first solo gallery show, he decided to knock New Yorkers’ eyes out with some new green and blue pigments recently developed by DuPont. Two paintings from that show, Island Funeral and Black Spruce Ledge are here, and the blues are unforgettable.
Indeed, the vibrant azure of sea and sky so dominates the tempera paintings that your eye can scarcely look at anything else. Island Funeral, a bird’s-eye view of people converging in boats on a small island, is an isolate’s vision of community, and Wyeth wanted it to be a masterpiece. Instead, it is a fine painting distorted by a gimmick.
Over the last several years, as I have written too much, it seems, about the Wyeths, I have come to view N.C. as a monster of ego and manipulation. This show gives me another view — that of the bookish, frightened, and insecure boy, afraid to leave home and face the wider world. In his self-portraits he seems to act at being dignified, with something not quite formed underneath.
It all comes together in the show’s most bizarre painting, In a Dream I Meet General Washington (1930).
In this work, inspired, Wyeth said, by an actual dream he had, the artist stands with his back to us, paintbrushes in hand, atop a scaffold. This raises him almost high enough to speak with George Washington, who is presumably in the vicinity of Wyeth’s house to lose the Battle of Brandywine.
American soldiers are moving past them behind, and in the lower left corner of the painting, near the bodies of some fallen British soldiers, young Andrew Wyeth sketches.
The father of our country, who seems incongruously to be slipping off his white steed, gives the artistic patriarch a thumbs-up gesture. “You’re doing a good job,” he seems to be telling N.C. “In your dreams.”
N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives
June 22-Sept. 15 at Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffmans Mill Road, Chadds Ford.
Hours: 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily (9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. after July 1).
Admission: Adults, $18; seniors, $15; children 6-18 and students with ID, $6 (children under 6 free).