CHADDS FORD, Penn. — Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) was among the most famous and widely beloved American painters of his day. But as the career-spanning retrospective N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives at the Brandywine River Museum of Art makes clear, he was never satisfied with the popular acclaim his book and magazine illustrations brought him. He wanted to be recognized as a “serious” artist as well.
Wyeth studied under Howard Pyle, a preeminent illustrator at the turn of the 20th century, whose engravings van Gogh had pronounced “astounding.” Wyeth made an early specialty of Western scenes, emulating Frederick Remington to some degree, but his real breakthrough came in 1911 when Scribner’s commissioned him to illustrate its reissue of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Those 14 unforgettable paintings have shaped the imaginations of generations of readers — and perhaps in a darker key than Stevenson’s original text. The book is still in print.
Treasure Island netted Wyeth enough to build a house and studio, and during the next three decades he illustrated over two dozen “deluxe” editions of classics, from Homer to Jules Verne. He was the leading figure of the “golden age” of American illustration, when printing technology enabled fairly high-quality color reproduction of paintings. Drawing on classical techniques and a sure sense of light and shadow, Wyeth could capture crucial moments of a narrative in striking compositions, such as Treasure Island’s haunting picture of old blind Pew, lost and bewildered, abandoned by his companions and about to be trampled by the revenue agents’ horses.
Wyeth also painted hundreds of magazine covers and illustrations, calendars, and advertisements for such products as Cream of Wheat cereal, Coca-Cola, and Aunt Jemima pancake mix. This exhibition has plenty of Wyeth’s magazine and book illustrations — including some stunning canvases from The Last of the Mohicans and The Mysterious Island — but little of his advertising work is included, for better or worse: “Ethan Allen, Forerunner of Independence” (1934), painted for Dixon-Ticonderoga Pencils, and “Soldiers of the Soil” (1942), for a morale-raising wartime calendar, are technically accomplished but earnestly tacky.
Logistics militate against the inclusion of Wyeth’s other major commercial pursuit, his large-scale public murals. There are, however, a pair of presentation paintings from 1923 for murals at the First National Bank of Boston and a large-scale mock-up of “Apotheosis of the Family” (1931) for the Wilmington Savings Fund Society. While its rendering recalls American regional modernism, this grand composition has more in common with the murals of Puvis de Chavannes than those of Wyeth’s contemporaries, Thomas Hart Benton or Diego Rivera. Wyeth’s classically nude figures go about their task of building civilization with calm placidity, immune to the economic and class struggles that so often energize Benton’s and Rivera’s murals.
The disturbing subtext to Wyeth’s “apotheosis” of the (classical, white) family is the artist’s deep investment in theories of eugenics. The only subjects of color on display are the “noble savages” in his early Western canvases and his Fenimore Cooper illustrations. Wyeth’s patriotism, which saturates his work well beyond his portraits of George Washington and his colonial scenes, is heartfelt and guileless — but his America remains Christian, agrarian, and White.
Illustration and other commercial work provided Wyeth a very comfortable living, but did not satisfy his deep ambition to be taken seriously in the art world. Throughout his career, he painted uncommissioned canvases — landscapes, rural scenes, family portraits — in which he explored techniques beyond the Old Master techniques that served him so well in his commercial work.
Impressionism was still new to many American painters at this time, yet Wyeth produced a number of quasi-impressionistic landscapes; “Chadds Ford Landscape – July 1909” even incorporates Seurat’s pointillism. Other canvases allude to Charles Burchfield’s loose, gestural handling of trees, as well as the Expressionists’ distortions of perspective. Wyeth’s “Self-Portrait in Top Hat and Cape” (ca. 1927) features what he called a “prismatic” background, which looks very Cubist, but the portrait itself is resolutely realistic. He would go only so far in violating conventional canons of representation, and he never ventured into pure abstraction. In the 1920s he experimented with rendering landscapes in the stylized and rounded manner of Grant Wood and Benton.
Late in his career Wyeth shifted from using oil paints to egg tempera, a Renaissance technique in which multiple thin layers of paint are glazed over a titanium white ground, producing a dazzling transparency and intensity of color. This change of medium, along with a sense of geometrical order influenced by American Regionalism and the compositional mastery he had always commanded, resulted in some extraordinary paintings in the last years of his life.
“Island Funeral” (1939) is a bird’s-eye view of a tiny, barely inhabited island, where a crowd of sail and motor boats have converged for the funeral of a local. It is at once a genre scene of New England life (with allusions to funeral paintings going back to Courbet) and a meditation on human insignificance in relation to nature, and it is a strikingly beautiful rendering of nature. The cloud above vaguely mirrors the shape of the island and, like the lately departed islander, seems to be drifting into the shade at the left edge of the picture plane. Wyeth achieved the water’s brilliant blue thanks in part to pigments newly developed by his Wilmington neighbors at DuPont Chemicals.
“Dark Harbor Fishermen” (1943) is more austere. The close perspective crops out the horizon line, flattening the composition. The diagonal lines of the boats and dock draw the eye from the darkness of the waters to the silver tangle of herring and the flock of gulls haunting the fishermen at their work. Even as the picture portrays motion and labor — the gulls hover and dark, the fisherman bends down to scoop up another net full of fish — the overall sense is of quiet stasis. The men’s faces are turned away from us; absorbed in their work, they become elements in a play of shadow and luminous color.
Wyeth never achieved the art-world recognition he craved. His only gallery show, in 1939, proved disappointing: only two paintings sold, and reviewers focused less on his work than on his status as the patriarch of an art dynasty (two of his daughters were painters, and his son Andrew already had two sold-out shows under his belt). New Perspectives tries hard to present Wyeth as a significant and “serious” artist, and a number of paintings bear out that claim — for instance, “The Drowning” (1936), “The Lobsterman (The Doryman)” (1944), “Dark Harbor Fishermen,” and, above all, “Island Funeral.” More interesting perhaps is how Wyeth’s career blurs the hoary distinctions between “serious” and “commercial” art. One can certainly sense the power and pathos of “The War Letter” (1944), an understated scene of a middle-aged rural couple in a foreboding landscape, reading a letter from the front; but Wyeth’s vision of old Pew fumbling across the moonlit road, if more melodramatic, is every bit as memorable and masterful — and just as likely to lodge itself in one’s memory.
N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania) through September 15.