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3 March 2021

The hidden disappointment of NC Wyeth

Despite his immense success as an illustrator of children’s classics, the artist longed for respect as a painter.

By Michael Prodger

The illustrations of NC (Newell Convers) Wyeth set a generation of American boys daydreaming of ripping-yarn history and the cowboy West. In the first three decades of the 20th century, his work was ubiquitous: his drawings – all bold colour, melodrama, cinematic composition, and narrative drive – brought fabled tales such as Treasure Island, Robin Hood and The Last of the Mohicans to even more vivid life. They appeared in numerous magazines and on advertising billboards, and seeped into Hollywood, too: the look of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers was drawn directly from Wyeth’s heart-quickening vision of the past.

For Wyeth (1882-1945), however, being the most successful illustrator in the country was not something that sat easily with him. He had higher artistic aspirations. “I bitched myself with the accursed success in skin-deep pictures and illustrations,” he lamented, just a decade or so into his career. An illustration was a practical thing, he believed, in both its intention to give an instant hit and in the limitations of commercial printing, and “this fact alone kills that underlying inspiration to create thought. Instead of expressing that inner feeling, you express the outward thought… or imitation of that feeling.” That inaccessible inner feeling never stopped gnawing at him.

Wyeth was nevertheless ideally suited to the role of illustrator. His father came from a family of second wave Puritan colonists and succeeding generations played full parts in young America’s many wars – against the French, the British, the Native Americans and one another. Wyeth grew up on these ancestor tales. His boyhood was active, spent on a farm, and it imprinted in him the instincts of a natural outdoorsman: “When I paint a figure on horseback, a man ploughing, or a woman buffeted by the wind,” he later said, “I have an acute sense of the muscle strain, the feel of the hickory handle, or the protective bend of the head and squint of eye that each pose involves.” His literary side came from his mother, of Swiss descent, who knew both Henry Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow. F Scott Fitzgerald would become a friend of his own.

[See also: The meticulous paintings of Winifred Knights]

Wyeth initially trained as a technical draughtsman but switched to fine art and then illustration when he became a student of Howard Pyle, the most eminent graphic artist of the time. Pyle believed that authenticity was the key to successful illustration, so the artist should understand what it was he was drawing. He instructed his charges to “throw your heart into the picture then jump in after it”. As a result, Wyeth headed west, between 1904 and 1906, making trips to Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, where he was robbed, worked as a cattle drover and a mail rider, drove a stagecoach, survived a stampede, and mingled with Native American tribes. The life suited him: “The fascination of it clutches me like some unseen animal.”

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By the time of his travels he had already experienced success: in 1903, just five months after starting with Pyle, he sent a speculative magazine cover showing a cowboy on a bucking bronco to the Saturday Evening Post, which ran it and paid him a hefty $60 (around $1,500 today). With the certainty of mind that came with being 21 and on the up, he described his work as “true, solid American subjects – nothing foreign about them”.

Foreignness did come, however, and with it fame, when he painted 17 canvases illustrating Treasure Island for the publisher Scribner. When reduced for the page, the pictures lost nothing of their detail or effect and the $2,500 proceeds from the huge success of the book allowed him to buy 18 acres of land near a Revolutionary War battlefield in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and build a house and studio there. No fewer than 24 further commissions from the publisher followed, released as Scribner Classics, which became a staple in American homes. Wyeth would eventually illustrate 112 books, mostly children’s adventure stories, as well as producing some 3,000 paintings, and advertising images for such all-American brands as Coca-Cola, Lucky Strike cigarettes and Blue Buckle Overalls.

[See also: How Richard Parkes Bonington exported the English landscape tradition to France]

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Nevertheless, he remained conflicted about what he wanted to be. Alongside his commercial work, he started to paint the landscapes and rural scenes around his Chadds Ford home and the coast of Maine, where he owned a holiday house. He experimented with a variety of styles, from impressionism to the America-infused regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. There was a blood and soil feel to the nondescript and typical farms he painted, to his pictures of the cliffs, rocks and sea of the northern coast, and the corners of meadows that had been won by the nation’s hard-scrabble pioneers.

This painting, circa 1915-20, of a barn near Chadds Ford, shows one such patch. The picture is the opposite of his illustrations: it doesn’t show much – some scrub trees and overgrown grasses, a broken wall that hints at a deeper past and a functional and unadorned building – and is neither grand nor picturesque. But it does have the sort of homespun authenticity that Wyeth, who hardened into a somewhat reactionary patriot, felt so deeply. The handling is open and rapid (he could paint a big subject picture – from conception to exe-cution – in just three hours), and the paint thin. Wyeth propped himself on the downwards slope beneath the barn and showed just what he saw when he looked up, no more and no less.

Over the years he made numerous similar near subjectless pictures of tucked-away America, showing little slices of familiar and undemonstrative countryside – a lane, a couple of trees, a pond, some haystacks. Join them together and they represent Wyeth taking his daily walk, each picture recording a brief glance left or right.

[See also: How the German painter Lovis Corinth found his many moods reflected in a Bavarian lake]

But, as he recalled in later life, when his landscapes were exhibited – without success – he couldn’t escape his reputation. “Critics used the word ‘illustrator’ as a denigrating label. I resented the implied barrier… Both illustrator and painter are artists who are in pictorial communication. Both should be measured by their competence – not by arti-ficial compartments contrived by critics.”

There may have been a large dose of hurt pride in his words but also an awareness of his limitations. “I have been highly conscious of certain serious artistic weaknesses that stand between me and the next step ahead,” he confessed, and although in the 1930s he accepted fewer commercial commissions to free up more time for his “serious” work – both easel paintings and murals for public and commercial buildings – he never managed to take that next step.

Days before turning 63, Wyeth died with his grandson when he stalled his car on a level crossing and they were hit by a train. By then, he had established a dynasty and three of his five children went on to be artists of note. But it was the youngest of them, Andrew, who achieved what his father yearned for but never accomplished, and became one of the most significant painters in postwar America. 

This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus