Saturday, January 30, 2010

Quest for Immortality

Quick: what images do you think of when you think of N.C. Wyeth?

“Dear Papa,” N.C. Wyeth wrote in 1909. “All that I have done in the past, and all that I could do in the future (in illustration) would be utterly forgotten in a preciously few years except by a few friends and relatives perhaps. It is my purpose to create pictures that will last, like the works of men like Michelangelo, Raphael, Millet, and scores of others….Therefore, I am going to drop illustration.”

Wyeth wanted to get far enough ahead financially to devote himself exclusively to easel painting.

Two years after he wrote the letter he created the unforgettable paintings of Treasure Island.

Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, and Robin Hood all lay before him.

The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, edited by Betsy Wyeth, 1971, page 292.


jeff jordan said...

I personally am unimpressed with his Fine Art paintings. I think he got lost somewhere along the way. Couldn't quite break loose from the illustration path. You is what you are.

I'm a Surrealist up here in Northern Cali. There's a TON of great Landscape/Traditional painters up here. The only problem is, they all paint the same places. You have to find a signature to see who did what. I always wanted to tell stories, be involved in the world, not just looking at the world. Like Picasso felt the Impressionists just painted the weather. I think it's the same with these people.

Maybe 10 years ago a "friend" came up to me, said "Hey Jeff, why don't you paint some Landscapes to pay the rent?" But if you do, you get made as a Landscape painter. Once I started to make it the way I wanted to, as a Surrealist--NOT painting straight-up Landscapes, the same guy came up to me, sez "It's so great you stuck to your guns."

There's a lesson in there, somewhere.

kev ferrara said...

Having pored over N.C.'s entire catalogue raisonne several times (at it seems likely that the number of great images he created is staggeringly close to 1000! I can't think of another artist in history about whom one may make that claim.

He cannot possibly have made that many great works unless he deeply loved the process and the result. There's just no other way. The work is suffused with joy and creativity and passion and deep consideration and astute observation and his interest in art theory and philosophy and history and psychology and everything else an examined life may offer up to the active creative mind.

That he was prone to believe in fashionable ideologies that damned the very work he loved to create was one of the great tragedies of his life, I believe. His talent for getting carried away by an idea was an extraordinary mental weapon, but one that wasn't always pointed in the correct direction.


SeBentley said...

The Mysterious Island Cover Illustration. If not that, then the end papers to Treasure Island, then a couple of paintings from The Boy's King Arthur (Including and especially the cover). Also, Kidnapped and Robin Hood spring to mind.

The first time my friend and I saw his paintings in life, my friend teared up at how incredibly beautiful his work is. One terrible thing about some of his work is how certain paintings (such as the cover to Mysterious Island) lose so much of their wonderful color. I deeply regret that the last time I visited the Brandywine, the Mysterious Island painting wasn't up, and I couldn't even begin to describe the intensity of the color used.

James Gurney said...

Jeff, great points. Wyeth in his letters described landscape painters in his Brandywine valley in very similar terms to yours. He said they just came like hunters to bag game or real estate agents to carve off parcels to sell.

He wanted to paint landscapes, too, (and did from early on), but he wanted to capture the significance, the mystery, the sadness--all these emotions that were connected to his backyard, and he felt everyone was missing that. Perhaps the fact he passed some of these ideas on to Andrew accounts for Andrew's great achievement.

Kev, you make great points, too. There's no doubt he was passionate about his illustration work, and the fact he was always questioning his motives and reaching for a personal vision made it all thr richer.

I remember reading it Pitz, etc that Pyle would say 'first an artist, then an illustrator," but Pyle was clearly pushing Wyeth toward easel painting even when he was a student, much to Wyeth's confusion.

It seems like a lot of the golden-agers (except maybe Rockwell and Leyendecker) were reaching for some other avenue to immortality, and a lot of them went to mural painting.

SeBentley: So true! It's one thing to see the printed pieces, and another thing to see the originals.

Darren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren said...

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, etc. was the brother of R.A.M. Stevenson.

R.A.M. Stevenson studied at Carolus-Duran's atelier along side Sargent. He is now most well known for his monograph, Velasquez (Velazquez).

A number of editions of this book are available for free online at google books or

Randall Ensley said...

In my little art studio I have a micro-print from "The Last of the Mohicans" where a British Redcoat is in a struggle to the death with a Mohawk(?) with a waterfall in the background. It is marvelous in composition and action. An inspiration.

Charles Valsechi said...

So, obsessed with this man right now. I have been reading his personal correspondence letters a bit every night.

Steve said...

Due to my completely unbalanced love of canoes -- birchbark canoes in particular -- the images that first come to mind when thinking of N.C. Wyeth are from Last of the Mohicans. Wyeth exaggerated the curve of the canoe stems a bit, but it feels to me he was simply amplifying something he loved, too.

The other N.C.W. images that are most in my mind these days are the dozen or so paintings on the walls of the Needham, MA public library. There they are, filling a small room of a medium-sized library in the town of his childhood. No gallery crowds, no headset-wearing tourists, just one or two people in easy chairs reading books underneath glowing paintings.

As to the ancient debate about the merits of fine art vs. illustration, I was reading about Hokusai's amazing life recently. One comment in the text hit me; that in the time of Hokusai's Japan, there was no hierarchy set between art produced in conjunction with "text," or art as stand-alone imagery. The inferior status accorded "illustration" is largely a Western concept.

JP said...

The N.C. Wyeth work that is burned into my memory is "The Discoverer." I received a reprint in National Geographic to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the painting. That print, in particular, held some sort of magic to my 6 year old brain. I'll never forget the bold conquistador and his men coming over a rise towards the new world from stormy darkness to openness and light.

I've argued with my friends about this, but I feel like N.C. strikes a deeper chord with me than his exquisitely talented son, mostly because of the unbridled adventure in his work. Personally I will take "The Discoverer" hanging over my desk rather than a Michelangelo any day.

Darren said...

I meant to say that R.A.M. Stevenson was R.L.'s cousin, not his brother.

David B. Ellis said...

I've had a similar artistic struggle ever since becoming a painter. My passion is painting science fiction and fantasy subjects but, aware of how little respect this sort of work gets, I diverted my attention into more conventional subjects for a very long time. Though I liked working in landscape it always felt like the wrong choice. Lately I've abandoned doing anything but the sort of work that I'm strongly drawn to.

It's funny. For most of the history of art imaginative works depicting mythology were considered among the highest forms of art....but today the artists who are creating works in a similar spirit (using our modern myths) aren't even generally looked at as worthy of hanging in any sort of respectable art gallery.

Sheer stupidity.

Amy Thompson said...

I find I both genuinely like and dislike N.C. Wyeth's illustrations at the same time. I love the realism, technical brilliance, movement, and drama on one hand; but on the other hand, some of his illustrations (I feel sacrilegious saying this!) have a slightly corny, cheesy feel to them, at least to me. I can't put my finger on what it is exactly -- maybe it's the overly theatrical, very posed look some of the figures have, maybe the lighting, or maybe something about the style? Is it just me?

Nathan Meidell said...

I love N.C. Wyeth. There are a few illustrators whose work I am most drawn to. N.C. Wyeth has always been one of those.

It is sad to think that he might not have felt himself fulfilled in the classic illustrations he gave to so many like me growing up.

I still haven't read Treasure Island, but since I was old enough to enjoy pictures I would flip through the book for his works.

For me those are enduring memories.

Mary Bullock said...

I absolutely LOVE N.C. especially the one of the blind man at night - Wow! the composition is wonderful.

Don't get me going on the snobbery of some artists that look down their noses at illustration.
GRRRRRRRRRRRR! It takes the same amount of skill, talent etc. to create fine art as it does illustration - BOTH are art!

Also a side note about N.C. and his son Andrew. At Rockland there is painting by Andrew of a man walking in a field of long grasses. It is a beautiful expression of solitude that Andrew is famous for. But next to it, is a note from Andrew saying that when he showed his father the painting, N.C. said "You need to put a gun in the man's hand and dog in the picture if you expect to sell it." LOL!!! Andrew said "My dad just didn't get it".

armandcabrera said...

Wyeths desire to be an easel painter infused his illustrations with truth. Many scenes for Robin Hood and otehr books were painted near his homes in Chadds Ford or Port Clyde. I think this is one of the reasons his paintings survived the way they have.

The qulaity of aintings like the 'The fence menders' and 'Buttonwood farm' can stand up to any american impressionist landscape painter.

The book, Not for Publication: Landscapes, Still Lifes, and Portraits by N. C. Wyeth show just how accomplished he was at easel painting.

Elessa said...

Years ago I mentioned to a friend that I was reading one of my favourite authors, A. Conan Doyle. The book was The White Company.

About a week later I received in the mail a first edition of the book illustrated by N.C. Wyeth from that same friend.

I love the illustrations for the story. I have always liked his imagery.