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N. C. Wyeth

July 2024
19min read

The great illustrator found giants in clouds and inspiration in the classics of fiction and history. And, like old Charles Willson Peale, he founded and trained a dynasty of fine artists

The spreading power of a great illustrator’s work can be beyond calculation; it is an imponderable force that works in hidden ways and eludes attempts at measurement. So it certainly has been in the case of N. C. Wyeth. He was an unmistakable personality, a man of enormous energy and great talent. He possessed a breath-taking imagination, constant and grand, which he poured into a series of dynamic pictures. He illustrated most of the great children’s classics, with fire that kindled sparks in tens of thousands of young minds.

The spreading power of a great illustrator’s work can be beyond calculation; it is an imponderable force that works in hidden ways and eludes attempts at measurement. So it certainly has been in the case of N. C. Wyeth. He was an unmistakable personality, a man of enormous energy and great talent. He possessed a breath-taking imagination, constant and grand, which he poured into a series of dynamic pictures. He illustrated most of the great children’s classics, with fire that kindled sparks in tens of thousands of young minds. He created a legend which has grown steadily since his death, and, no less importantly, he sired a remarkably gifted family. Although in recent years public attention has been focussed largely on one of Wyeth’s sons, Andrew, there has been an array of strong talents working beside him, and behind them all looms the figure of the extraordinary father. Here is probably the only American family of artists which rivals that of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Peales.

Newell Convers Wyeth came out of New England, a tall, active youth with a head full of hopes, ambitions, and pictorial dreams. He was born in Needham, Massachusetts, on October 22, 1882, the son of a dealer in grains, a member of an old family which included many Harvard men; his mother was a descendant of Andrew Zirngiebel, a Swiss horticulturist who had travelled to the United States with Louis Agassiz (see “Professor of the World’s Wonders” in the February, 1961, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Young Wyeth felt that he had inherited his early passion for drawing from the Zirngiebels, and it was his mother who encouraged it.

The Wyeth acres ran down to the banks of the winding Charles River, and there were meadows, fields, and woodlands for a child to explore. The boy grew up with a sense of space and freedom. As a youngster he drew the things about him, the countryside, the water, the sports and pastimes of his brothers and playmates. When he was a little older he began to frequent the polo field at nearby Karlstein, and presently he was enjoying a local reputation for his drawings of horses. As he moved through his middle and later teens he attended first the Mechanic Arts High School, then the Massachusetts Normal Art School, and finally the Eric Pape School of Art, all in nearby Boston.

But he was reaching for a wider horizon, and his instincts were leading him to the place and the man who would ignite and focus his great gifts. In his winter studios in Wilmington, Delaware, and in his summer classes in the village of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the great illustrator Howard Pyle had created a mecca for young people who wanted to follow in his footsteps. The classes were small and hand-picked. No tuition was charged, only a small fee for model hire and incidental expenses. The competition for admission was sharp and drastic, but the result was a small company of gifted and hard-working young men and women who in a few years would leave a lasting imprint upon American illustration. It was this company which young Wyeth, at the age of twenty, hoped to join.

His first tremulous meeting with the great teacher and illustrator is best told in his own words:

"My most vivid recollection of Howard PyIc was gained during the first five minutes I knew him. He stood with his back to the blazing and crackling logs in his studio fireplace, his legs spaced apart, his arms akimbo. His towering figure seemed to lift to greater heights with the swiftly ascending smoke and sparks from the hearth behind him.

It happened on one of those blue and gold days in October. The air was sharp and keen. Moreover, it was my birthday. I was young, ambitious and impressionable. For years, it seemed, I had dreamed of this meeting. Success in winning this master’s interest and sympathy to the cause of my own artistic advancement seemed so much to ask, so remote, such a vain hope. But here I was at last, seated before him in the very room in which were born so many of the pictures I had breathlessly admired from boyhood. Paintings and drawings that had long since become a living and indispensable part of my own life.

And as Howard Pyle stood there, talking gently but with unmistakable emphasis, his large and genial countenance hypnotized me. The mobile mask of his face became more than individual. My rapid reflections were swept beyond the actual man. It was bewildering. I heard every modulation of his voice and I took note of his every word. Occasionally I would answer a question. I remember all this clearly. But a searching beyond his countenance persisted.

The soft top-light from the glass roof high above us poured down like a magical and illuminated mist over his magnificent head…the entire countenance became majestically severe, forcclul, unrelenting. The recollection of the masks of Beethoven, Washington, Goethe, Keats, passed in swift succession before my vision and in a sudden grasp of lhe truth I realized that the artist’s face before me was actually a living composite of the men of history and romance which he had so magically and dramatically perpetuated on canvas."

Wyeth came from that interview walking on air. He had been complimented and accepted as a student on trial. Later he said that Pyle had told him that “although my work showed promise and was practical, he sternly emphasized that hard work, constantly applied, and the living of a simple life were the two things that would bring about my making.” Coming down to earth, Wyeth found a studio to share with a fellow student, Philip Hoyt, for a dollar a week. His room cost him two dollars and his board four; thirty dollars a month might be stretched to cover everything—paradise for a dollar a day!

Wilmington at the turn of the century still had the air of a family town—the family, of course, being the Du Ponts—teetering on the brink of expansion into an industrial city. There was a flavor of the colonial and federal, with later Victorian and eclectic additions. The countryside was close in, easy for healthy limbs to reach. And Chadds Ford, where Pyle and the class summered, was about twelve miles out along the meadows of Brandywine Creek, with the tilled fields and wooded slopes curving up the enclosing hills. N. C. had an instant sense of familiarity, as though he had come back to something he had always known.

He had found his home and artistic climate and a soil into which he could sink his roots. The region’s early settlements, its Revolutionary battlefield, its stone houses and churning mills, its wagon roads up into the Pennsylvania German country—with all these old and eternal things Pyle and his eager disciples established a rapport, and with it went a bright expectancy that the valley would open a door into an empire of the imagination. It was all rolled up into a single phrase: “the Brandywine tradition.”

The intoxication was shared by even the least of the Pyle class; N. C. it filled to the brim. Pyle, who had a canny gift for probing beneath the surface, had been able to read past the young candidate’s drawings into the leashed power and pictorial drama dammed up inside him. He could offer direction and discipline to his students, but first he would build a fire in them that might light them through life. He could not drive all up to his own level, but even the least responsive carried away a lasting glow.

The core of Pyle’s instruction was a weekly composition class in which each student submitted an original picture for discussion and evaluation. Pyle was adept at clarifying muddled thoughts and opening a path to simplified and emphatic expression. He goaded his pupils with such exclamations as “Live in your picture! Throw your heart into the canvas and leap in after it!” This was thrilling doctrine for N. C., and after the first lecture he wrote to his mother: “The composition lecture lasted two hours and it opened my eyes more than any talk I ever heard.”

Communion and competition with sharp young rivals (among whom were George Harding, Thornton Oakley, Frank Schoonover, Stanley Arthurs, Clifford Ashlry, and Sidney Chase, all destined to become noted illustrators or painters); the incentive of satisfying an inspiring, understanding, but demanding master; the spur of new sights, sounds, and smells; all liberated the pent-up energy of a strong body and darting mind. In this apprentice time Wyeth grew like corn in the night. But not all the hours were spent at the easel. His explosive muscles and exuberant nature had to have their say in other ways: games and horseplay, long walks exploring the countryside, riding and canoeing, skating and sleighing, pranks and practical jokes. Once the group acquired a transit and other surveyor’s equipment and, suitably dressed for their hoax, moved out into one of Wilmington's busy intersections and held up traffic for many impatient minutes. At the appearance of a policeman all slipped away.

Then there was the celebration of Howard Pyle’s fiftieth birthday with an ambitious medieval banquet. The students, nearly a score of them, dressed as favorite Pyle characters, Wyeth as Little John. After a hilarious and noisy evening of eating, drinking, speeches, and parades, and with the departure of the guest of honor at eleven-thirty, suddenly, in Wyeth’s words, Unbeknown to me as to how it started there was a rush and crash and two bodies of fellows clashed together, about nine on a side, each wielding a huge sword striking to right and left. Every light was extinguished and one could see nothing but continual scatterings and sunbursts of sparks caused by the clashing steel. Beckcr’s sword was wrenched from his grasp and hurled through a window followed quickly by Ashley’s.

This kept up for some twenty minutes until fellows dropped out from sheer exhaustion. They all dropped out but Pfeifer and I, and the battle-royal continued for five minutes under strenuous conditions. I had a broad sword and wielded it with all my might and he had a Cavalry sabre and did the same. Amid cheers and yelling we fought until by a lucky stroke I broke his sword at the hilt sending the blade with a br-r-r-r across the room. Thus ended the duel. I arose at 9:30 stiff as a board.

All this was the stuff of growing up. Wyeth was rubbing against both people and ideas, taking part in arguments, hearing new names and seeing new pictures, conceiving new admirations. We know that his first composition for Pyle was a picture of New England haying, a scene very familiar to him, and that he was becoming deeply influenced by the Pyle passion for the early American background. A third engrossing subject was the Far West of cowpunchcr, trapper, and Indian. In a letter to his parents he describes one of his subjects:

"My composition today was two boy Indians, naked, cautiously climbing up over a rock which looked over a deep black hole of water at the sharp turn of a winding brook. Everything is dark save two bright glimmers of evening sky which are shown through the dark mysterious woods which form the background. One of the Indians has a fish spear uplifted, ready to dart into the transparent water upon any trout that happens to be lurking there, the other boy by a gesture is told to keep back."

It was undoubtedly pictures of this kind that he took with him when he returned to Needham for the Christmas holidays. On his way back he stopped over in New York and visited some publishers with his portfolio. He was heartened by their reception of his work and came back with his first commission, an illustration for a magazine called Success. Not long afterward a cover sketch he submitted to the Saturday Evening Post was approved, and a few months later the finished work, a broncobuster, appeared on newsstands across the country. Pyle had told him that his period of trial was over; he was a full-fledged member of the HPSA (Howard Pyle School of Art), and its gold and red button was in his lapel. He left the studio he had shared with Hoyt and moved in with Stanley Arthurs and Frank Schoonover in one of the two studio-buildings Pyle had built on Franklin Street adjacent to his own. From there could be glimpsed the encroaching city to the east and at a little distance the retreating countryside in the west. [These buildings are still used, the old Pyle studio by an active group of women artists and the two students’ studios by individual artists.]

Pyle at this point seemed apprehensive about his new pupil’s early successes, and for a time Wyeth submitted to the discipline of drawing from the cast and the figure, making no more forays in search of illustrative work. Perhaps he was rushing ahead into professional life before the foundations were all secure. And PyIe put his faith in sturdy foundations.

This was a grind, monotonous to N. C.’s impulsive nature, but he gritted his teeth and slaved away. At last the ban was lifted and he could go back to painting the teasing images with which his mind was bursting. More commissions began to come in, and he was able to send some money back home and to save a little. These were happy days he always remembered —the daylight hours crammed with work (with occasional spurts of reckless fun), the relaxation of tension as the skylight above darkened, the listening for the soft thud of the master’s door and the rustle of his sleeve on the ivy, his cheerful entrance, the talk spurred by the mood of the moment, of pictures, people, history, the events of the day, or often enough by the teachings of the mystic Swedenborg. Pyle spoke from a full mind and fluently, picturesquely. His talk seems to have seldom been repetitious; it was free from clichés and rich in examples that would be meaningful to picture-making minds. These conversations at dusk could last a few minutes or an hour; sometimes Pyle’s footsteps went past the studio door without pausing; when he stopped to talk, it was an extra bonus, hoped for but unpredictable.

Like hundreds of other young artists, N. C. found himself making pictures of a frontier West he had never seen. He had learned what he could from the work of Remington, Russell, Catlin, and others who had made the West their own province, but he craved to scrutinize it with his own eyes. With some meager savings he managed it. He left for Colorado and a ranch where he was able to take part in a roundup and in the hundred and one chores of cattle raising, spending day after day in the saddle, absorbing the look and feel of new horizons, shapes, and sounds. From there he went south to the Navaho reservations in New Mexico, helping to pay his way by acting as a mail-rider. He came back with his head crammed with impressions and his portfolio filled with drawings.

This was one of his most fruitful experiences. In a relatively short time his thirsty nature had soaked up a great store of animated impressions upon which he was to draw for the rest of his life. He had been born with a gift for seeing everyday things with a magical eye. Now the gift was sharpened, practiced and automatic, and there was skill of hand behind it. The immediate result was a series of western pictures that found ready purchasers among the magazine editors. These pictures were virile, but they were subtle too. Most were painted from the warm earth-color range of the palette; the rainbow hues of the impressionists were still in the future. Wyeth was now able to project a mood, to use the fugitive effects of outdoor light to create electrifying patterns of tone. Pyle had opened his eyes to the mystery of shadows, and his own observation had taught him the dramatic effect of chance-darting shafts of sunlight.

The apprentice days were over. He was a well-rounded, practicing illustrator. Although he was still to work with Pyle for a period until he had been told he was a graduate, he had not only the admiration of his colleagues but a rising reputation in the publishing world. He felt that his father should be reimbursed for the expense of his education, and wrote him that he expected to accomplish this during the following year. He admits a certain extravagance: “Costumes and material. I have a chest of military costume that is invaluable to me and is the envy of H. P. himself.”

From the first days in Wilmington there was a steady stream of letters homeward to his parents and his brothers. Most of them have been saved. It was a closely knit family. The parents parted from the son with a pang, and he thought of them constantly. There were times when, feeling he could not bear the separation, he made the long journey to Needham.

In one of his letters to his mother is a casual mention of what was to be a major change in his life. He speaks of plans for a sleighing party and for going to church—“I met a Miss Bockius the other day and she being a Unitarian asked me to go. I accepted with pleasure.”

This was the prelude to love, complete and final. For about a year the letters home are strangely silent about it, but the young pair had to wait and plan until N. C.’s work had moved ahead another step and the bread and butter problem was solved. On the evening of April 16, 1906, Carolyn Bockius and Newell Convers Wyeth were married in the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington.

They settled in the town for a brief interval but at the first opportunity moved out into the country, to the Brandywine hills at Chadds Ford that N. C. had loved at first sight. Time after time his frequent letters to his mother expressed his deeply felt ties with the open land: “I always experience a singular, luxurious and pleasurable indolence after a rushing frenzied visit to the city and a return to this land of peace and beauty.”

These letters are an intimate chronicle of his life and work. He rode on the crest and dropped into the trough. He was sharply critical of his own work and motives and was constantly challenging himself to do better. Almost always there is a description of the weather, for his spirit was always sensitive to the changing patterns of the skies. It was second nature to him to scan the outdoors with a pictorial eye and to anticipate change on his very skin. These things were translated into his pictures. On a wintry, seven-below-zero day he writes, “I walked to Sugar Loaf in the evening and came nearer to freezing certain protruding features of my face than ever before. When I got back, my face felt like a mask I could take off and hang in the closet.”

The homely news of family life is there: Carolyn putting up Mason jars full of green beans from the garden; N. C. picking five barrels of apples—Baldwins, Northern Spys, and Winesaps; a vaudeville show, employing local talent, at Gallagher’s Hall, five cents admission. In 1907 Henriette, the first child, was born, and her baby ways are lovingly described: “May 29— 1908—The Butcher was here this morning and he weighed Henriette—19½ lbs.” A few years later:

Dear Papa: Last evening Henriette was repeating some of her nursery rhymes for the entertainment of visitors (sedate visitors at that), when she astonished us all with her powers of deduction, as follows,

Goosey, goosey gander / Where will I wander? / Upstairs and downstairs / In my ladies’ (hesitation here) water closet.

I perceived in a moment that she could not remember the word chamber , so substituted what to her was the true meaning of the word as she knew it.

One by one the other children enter the chronicle and grow up in their individual ways under our eyes: Carolyn—1909; Nathaniel—1911; Ann—1915; and Andrew—1917. They gave their father an additional excuse for dressing up, masquerading, play-acting. HaIloween, Christmas, and any other plausible time would produce a dramatic, fun-filled effort. There was a great variety of Old Kris Kringles over the years, even to one that climbed to a chimney on a slippery roof with almost tragic results. Another time Wyeth suddenly appeared before his children spangled and glowing with strings of small Christmas-tree bulbs draped over his costume. The family came to expect the unexpected. The whole pageantry of Christmas seemed to stem from N. C.’s mother and her Swiss forebears. The impulse to dress up is now an ingrained family trait that breaks out at Halloween or whenever the spirit moves.

The whole family was accustomed to being called upon to pose. Mrs. Wyeth grasping a Kentucky rifle could be converted into a lantern-jawed frontiersman with a few flicks of the brush and the ready Wyeth imagination. The children, at every stage of their growth, figured in their father’s pictures. Ann recalls posing dutifully while listening to young Andy’s carefree hi-yipping outside the studio windows. With the pose over, there was the walk with father down the road to Gallagher’s store and the reward of a bag of chocolate-covered marshmallows.

Except for a temporary move back to his parents’ house in Needham, from 1921 to 1923, while N. C. worked on some Boston murals and illustrations, Wyeth and his growing family remained in Chadds Ford, where he built a large, comfortable house on a hillside looking down on fields and the Baltimore Pike. Above the house, on the very top of the hill, was the studio. He was famous now. Work poured in. He could afford to refuse undesirable commissions.

Almost every year he painted a set of illustrations for one of the classics: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Black Arrow, Westward Ho!, The Mysterious Island, The Last of the Mohicans, The White Company, and a long list of other familiar titles. Scribner’s paid him several thousand dollars for the Treasure Island pictures. He leapt at the chance to picture Parkman’s Oregon Trail, for two of his ancestors had ridden a wagon train across the prairies and mountains to the coast. Most of the important magazines were pressing commissions upon him: Scribner’s, Harper’s, Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Country Gentleman, Metropolitan, American, and others.

Many of his illustrations were painted in two or three days. His mind seized quickly upon a problem, his emotions rose to a peak of creation, and his painter’s hand worked with resourcefulness and authority. Like all ranking artists, he had a brain in his fingers. His drive and facility were the admiration and envy of others in the field. One of them, Thornton Oakley, wrote, “I am in despair over my own work when I see how easily and fluently Convers works on his pictures.”

Once, in an introspective mood, N. C. analyzed his own working methods: “I seem to do my painting subconsciously, for every moment before my canvas my mind is occupied with all manner of things—unless the picture is giving me trouble—then I can think of nothing else. There is nothing extraordinary about this—it is not only common to most, it is the only way fluent work can be done.”

Yet with all this flood of commissions he still found time to roam the fields with his sketching materials and to paint a succession of large easel pictures—figure pieces and landscapes. His paintings were being widely exhibited and greatly admired, but there were always the doctrinaire critics who used the word “illustrator” as a denigrating label. N. C. was too busy to enter into controversy, but he resented the artificial bar between painter and illustrator. Both, he believed, are artists engaged in pictorial communication. Both should be measured by the degree of their talents, not by the compartments contrived by the critics. He looked down the long perspective of the pictorial arts and found the illustrative element strong in the work of the masters, from Giotto to Rembrandt, Brueghel to Delacroix, Michelangelo to William Blake, Dürer to Daumier. If that element had sadly deteriorated into listless anecdotalism at the hands of some Victorian painters, that was a failure of talent, not principle. Modern art in fleeing from this lamentable listlessness was rushing toward an opposite weakness, banishment of all narrative power and representation of the visible world.

The thriving school of American landscape painting interested Wyeth vitally, particularly the Delaware River group clustered not many miles away near New Hope, Pennsylvania. He admired the work of Edward Redfield, William Lathrop, Daniel Garber, Morgan Colt, Robert Spencer, and others who had learned the language of French impressionism and were using it to tell the brisker and more rugged story of America’s countryside. The dancing colors of impressionism crept into Wyeth’s own palette, though the earth colors were not banished. The tonal range was heightened; air and light scintillated through the canvases. The reproductions of some of his later illustrations disappointed Wyeth: some of his intense hues were beyond the skill of the platemakers.

His painting hand had always craved size, elbowroom, and his original illustrations were usually about as large as feasible for a picture destined to be reduced to the size of a magazine or book page. But the ample wall areas of a mural decoration sent his imagination racing. He had an opportunity to paint a panel of an Indian hunt for a hotel in Utica, New York. With this experience behind him he was able to tackle with confidence larger projects like the two Civil War lunettes for the Missouri state capitol, a set of five upright panels on the theme of maritime commerce for the First National Bank of Boston, and two decorations for the Federal Reserve Bank in the same city. Many others followed: five panels in the Hubbard Memorial Building of the National Geographic Society in Washington; a large mural in the Franklin Savings Bank in New York; panels in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, New York, the Wilmington Savings Fund Society, and the First Mechanics National Bank of Trenton, New Jersey; and a triptych for the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the National Cathedral in Washington.

For Wyeth those were prime years. His great strength and energy were undiminished. (He could still hold two full milk cans out at arms’ length.) His eye and mind were as hungry as ever. He usually rose at dawn and fortified himself with two or three grapefruit halves, a high pile of hot cakes, and four or five eggs. Often Ann was his only breakfast companion. When she occasionally showed interest in more modest fare he would say in wonderment, “My, you’re a picky eaterl”

Sometimes, after a hard day’s work at the easel, he would come down the darkening path from the studio, stretching his arms and saying, “I wish the day was just starting.”

At the easel, he was always moving—retreating to get a more appraising view, advancing to place a firm, fluent brush stroke. Often the Victrola would be playing a Beethoven or Sibelius record. Young Andy, painting or drawing in the lower studio, would hear his tramp, tramp all day long. If it ceased for a while, that might presage a visit and a criticism. He never held any formal classes, as Pyle had, although there were many who came asking for criticism and advice, but a small art school had spontaneously recruited itself from his own family circle: Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew, and his two future sons-in-law, Peter Hurd and John McCoy. Young Ann Wyeth was encouraged in her music, and downstairs in the basement workshop, visitors were taken to see the accomplished locomotive and ship models of Nathaniel. Daughters Henriette and Carolyn were put through concentrated drills drawing from cast and still life and then from the human model, which seems like the traditional art school routine, but fortunately they were witnesses at the same time of the long parade of their father’s canvases, in every stage of the task—constant reminders of the goal of their daily drills. By the time young Andy was working in the studio the drills were relaxed; he was allowed to draw and paint as he wished—landscapes, model studies, imagined compositions of medieval knights, Revolutionary soldiers, ships, animals—anything that moved him. John McCoy, who worked with Andy in a studio just below the elder Wyeth’s, says, “N. C. didn’t talk much about ways and means but he opened my eyes to art as a way of living, a life-long commitment.”

There were frequent guests in the studio and at the dinner table, old friends and new friends drawn by Wyeth’s pictures and personality. There was constant good conversation. N. C. liked to yarn with his neighbors at the post office or in Gallagher’s store. He walked the fields and hills, following the seasons. At the family’s summer home near Port Clyde, Maine, he loved to collect Down East stories, which he would relate with a Maine twang to any listening ear.

The nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties were the years of full tide. Book and magazine illustrations, murals, and easel pictures came without pause from the studio on the hill. These pictures can be studied and appraised one by one, but the individual verdicts are relatively unimportant. It is the tide itself that must be felt and seen and its far-reaching fingers followed as they touch new eyes and minds. Then, on the morning of October 19, 1945, as Wyeth was driving with a young grandson, his station wagon stalled at a grade crossing near Chadds Ford, in the path of a westbound freight. The creative tide was suddenly, tragically, stemmed.

But it still reaches out. The long series of children’s classices went into homes across the nation and fed thousands of young minds of all ages. They are the kind of books that are worn with repeated rapt handling and saved from generation to generation. Most of them are still in print and find a fresh audience every year. They have helped to build an image of romance and wonder, of men and events larger than ordinary life. They have helped to color and define the American spirit. Of course, wonder and romance are the stuff of youth, but the need for them grows greater than ever as a more cynical age tends to drive them under cover.

Nor is the need confined to children. N. C. Wyeth was a man of the open, and his paintings are a shout for an uncramped life. The mechanized cataract of urban existence, the suffocation of close living, weighed down his spirit and aroused the rebel in him. The openness of his pictures, their strength of muscle and bone, their celebration of sky, grass, and water, speak to us more touchingly now that we know these things are slipping away from us.

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