Individually, each of the men and women in the 16 patriotic canvases by N.C. Wyeth exhibits a measure of strength.

But much as a platoon is stronger than individual soldiers, the paintings take on their true power when viewed as a group.

At least that was the intent of the artist, who produced the works in 1922 to illustrate a book of patriotic poems.

This week, in a show at the Chester County Art Association in West Chester, the public has a rare chance to see the paintings as Wyeth intended.

The 16 oil-on-canvas works are on loan from the Hill School, a private boarding and day school in Pottstown. Along with them, the association is showing five paintings owned by the Westtown School - one additional Wyeth and four by his friend George Gillett Whitney.

The works in Wyeth's patriotism series depict scenes of war throughout U.S. history, with vivid brushstrokes to match the bold words they accompany.

'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,

But spare your country's flag,' she said.

So wrote John Greenleaf Whittier in his Civil War poem "Barbara Frietchie," about a Union supporter who defiantly waved the American flag at Confederate troops as they marched through Frederick, Md. Wyeth painted her leaning out of a battered dormer window, the flag clutched in her right hand.

Historians generally agree that Frietchie did not actually confront the troops as described.

No matter, said Robert P. Sprague, a retired history teacher from Paoli who was among the first visitors Saturday to the show, which runs through Oct. 18. He summed up the appeal of the exhibit:

"The Americana and patriotism that comes off the canvas," said Sprague, 73, who taught for 36 years at Great Valley High School in Malvern.

His wife, Russ, 71, said that in addition to appreciating the historical and artistic value of the paintings, she was moved because she recalled seeing some of the works in books during her childhood.

"I respond to them in a very sentimental way," she said.

Wyeth sold the paintings in 1923 for $3,000 to Hill School athletic director Michael Sweeney, who immediately donated them to the school.

The set originally included 17, but one was destroyed in a 1950 fire. The school displays 15 of the works in its dining hall and one, depicting the famous ride of Paul Revere, in another building on campus.

The paintings have been shown outside the school only a handful of times.

It is fitting that one such occasion be at the art association, said Karen Delaney, executive director of the nonprofit. Wyeth was a cofounder of the group, which supports local artists and conducts classes.

"Their goal was to create a vehicle to bring art to the Chester County community," she said.

Upon asking the Hill School if it could borrow the paintings, the association got a thumbs-up in May. That meant a busy summer to get the show ready by October - including a major renovation of the exhibit space, overseen by association board president William Cook, an architect.

Tickets are $15, to help cover the cost of insurance, security, and the professional art handlers who installed the show, Delaney said. The association also is holding related events throughout the week, including sketching sessions and a recital of the poems by actors from the Uptown Entertainment Group.

Hill School officials said Wyeth would have made more money in 1923 had he accepted offers to buy individual paintings. According to the school, Wyeth wrote to an acquaintance when he learned they would be donated as a set:

"At present, I am sitting on top of the world!"

tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430 @TomAvril1