By Mike Vosburg
Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn what the critics say, Roy Lichtenstein and his ilk couldn’t wash out N.C. Wyeth’s brushes.
Critics don’t know how to deal with illustrators. They’re not real painters. They’re not historians.They are usually representational in their approach, and as such could be replaced by photographers. They are not writers who create their ideas. In fact the illustrator is a combination of all these people. The worst sin is that the illustrator works for hire. Consequently, he has no art-soul.
Bullshit. Art is the human celebration of the infinite and it will happen in the meanest of places at the unlikeliest of times to whoever has the courage and the honesty and the drive to let it happen. N.C. Wyeth let it happen to him.
As a child growing up in Pontiac,Michigan,, a weekly trip to the library was part of my TV-less family agenda. After quickly grabbing a handful of mysteries iac,Michigan, a weekly trip to the library was part of my TV-less family agenda. After quickly grabbing a handful of mysteries for the week, my next move was to rush from Copper to Porter to Stephenson shelves marked in my memory from previous visits, to pull volumes of Scribner’s Classics, illustrated by one N.C. Wyeth. And I sat and stared. I had started this at an early age; when I was no more than four or five my mother read to me portions of Treasure Island everyday and I vividly remember the shot of the blind beggar,Pew, about to be run down in the road.
Those pictures touched a place in my soul. The green of the forests. The glint of light on a cutlass. The nobility of the figures. They spoke of worlds to me that half a century of the brutal indoctrination of reality hasn’t yet quite destroyed. Staring at Uncas and Allen Breck Stuart and William Wallace made me realize that we had worlds inside us as well as out and the landscape of the imagination was infinitely more interesting than the mundane factory town I lived in.
Look at the translucent light in the water of “The Wreck of the Covenant” in Kidnapped...the rats scurrying up the staircase in “The Black Arrow”...the solemnity of the handshake in that same book...Magua kidnapping Alice in “The last of the Mohicans” where between a blue sky and a sunlit glade a half dozen slaughtered women lie. You can’t take your eyes off that bloody tomahawk stuck in a tree.”The Battle of Gen Falls”...Uncas Slays a Deer”...”Captain Bill Bones”...”Old Pew”...”The Hostage”... If you haven’t seen these books and pictures, track them down. What you’ve missed!
Years later, a bit more educated, I can see the influences of Rembrandt’s lighting and the brushwork of the impressionists and the absolute boldness of the tecnique. But the artistry and tecnique were always secondary. The primal soul that shouts from every one of those pictures is what sets it apart as a work of art.
“...and I in turn have inherited that strange love for things remote, things delicately perfumed with that sadness that is so exquisitely beautiful.” NC Wyeth
Influenced by his mother’s strong intellectual and emotional heritage Newell Convers Wyeth was encouraged by her in his art, while his father was concerned about his inability to make his living. It was never a problem.
At the age of 20 Wyeth began studying with Howard Pyle in Wilmongton,Delaware. Pyle, who often told his students: “It’s easy enough to learn to draw, it is very difficult to learn to think.”, was the ideal teacher for him. (A quote I keep on my desk to this day.) Their methods, interest, and personalities were similar. Pyle encouraged not only dedication to examining the exterior in detail when painting but also the essence of the picture being made.
Within a year N.C. was on the cover of Saturday Evening Post. He went west and worked and lived . His reputation grew. He returned east, married
(his wife is the model in many of his paintings) moved to Chadds Ford,Pennsylvania and started a family. His reputation continued to grow.
In 1911 Scribner’s issued a version of “Treasure Island” with his illustrations. Its success was immediate and overwhelming and Wyeth’s stature continued to grow as he replaced his late teacher as the preemminent illustrator in America.
Wyeth’s attention to art suffered at times because of his devotion to his family, but look at the results: Henreitte and Carolyn both became well known painters. Nathaniel became an engineer whose inventions have affected contemporary lives throughout the world. Ann became a renowned composer. Andrew, and his son Jamie, have continued the art tradition, their reputations perhaps unfairly overshadowing N.C.
In 1945, N.C. Wyeth and his grandson Newell were killed tragically when their car stalled on a railroad track and was struck by a train.
In his later years N.C. Wyeth continually felt his frustration at not making his mark as a great artist. As with the critics, he didn’t see his illustrations as important. Like his son Andrew, I disagree completely. You can visit the MOMA and the MOCA and amid the deserving Pollack’s and Miro’s you’ll also find suit after suit of the Emperor’s New Clothes on display. Given the opportunity I’d be with the rest of the kids at the Brandywine River Museum looking at a truly great American artist: Newell Convers Wyeth.
(The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum has two Wyeth paintings in their permanent collection. Give them a look.)