N.C. Wyeth is such a well-known artist that I feel he hardly needs introduction. One of America's foremost illustrators, he created art for 112 titles (including 25 for Scribners), bringing his realism, mastery of light and color, and dramatic tension to so many favorite books.
Newell Convers Wyeth was born October 22, 1882, in Needham, Massachusetts. His father's family had been in the area since 1645, and had included participants in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War. He was steeped in their oral history, which provided a great deal of subject matter for his work. His mother, daughter of Swiss immigrants, had been acquainted with Longfellow and Thoreau as a girl, and encouraged both his love of literature and his inclination for art. (His father thought he should focus on more practical things.)
The oldest of four brothers, he grew up on a farm and spent much time in his youth hunting and fishing and pursuing other outdoor activities. He early developed a deep love of nature and an eye for detail that would serve him well.
Wyeth was doing excellent watercolor paintings by the age of twelve, but heeding his father, he spent his high school years focusing on drafting at the Mechanics Arts High School in Boston until 1899. With his mother's support, he transferred to Massachusetts Normal Art School, where painting instructor Richard Andrew advised him to become an illustrator, and he began studying with Eric Pape, Charles Reed, and George Noyes.
On the advice of a couple of friends, Wyeth traveled to Wilmington, Delaware in October 1902, to study under Howard Pyle. This was an inspired decision: Pyle's instruction, which emphasized dramatic effect in painting and personal knowledge of one's subject, was foundational to the rest of Wyeth's career. Within 5 months, a 20 year old Wyeth had successfully submitted a cover for the Saturday Evening Post.
Between 1904-1906, Wyeth made three trips out west, absorbing the western experience that allowed him to paint images that placed him among the top artists of the day. His pictures appeared in several of the most popular magazines of the period, such as Century, Harper's Monthly, Ladies' Home Journal, McClure's, Outing, and Scribner's, and by 1907, Outing Magazine heralded him as "one of our greatest, if not our greatest, painter of American outdoor life."
During this time, in 1906, Wyeth married Carolyn Brenneman Bockius of Wilmington, where they first lived. Their daughter Henriette was born there in 1907, and in 1908, they moved to Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania. This had been the location of Pyle's summer school, and both the landscape and proximity to a Revolutionary War battlefield appealed to Wyeth. After his first book commission (Treasure Island) in 1911, the family bought 18 acres there and had a house and studio built. The couple would raise five talented children in that home.
Treasure Island was but the first of many book commissions. Scribners hired him for many more books, among the most famous of these are Kidnapped (1913), The Black Arrow (1916), The Boy's King Arthur (1917), The Mysterious Island (1918), The Last of the Mohicans (1919), The Deerslayer (1925), and The Yearling (1939). He also created illustrations for other publishers, for books such as Robin Hood (David McKay, 1917); Robinson Crusoe (Cosmopolitan, 1920); and Rip Van Winkle (David McKay, 1921). A couple of my personal favorites represent other publishers: The Odyssey of Homer (Houghton-Mifflin, 1929) and The Bounty Trilogy (Little, Brown, 1951).
Though Wyeth made a good income and grew quite famous as an illustrator, he gradually became dissatisfied and yearned to be known as a fine-arts painter. He felt the distinction between painting and illustration was an important one, and that illustration carried a derogatory connotation that he wished to escape, saying in 1908, "Painting and illustration cannot be mixed—one cannot merge from one into the other" and that "an illustration must be made practical, not only in its dramatic statement, but it must be a thing that will adapt itself to the engravers' and printers' limitations. 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." He created nearly 2,000 paintings, and by the 1930s-40s, he increasingly denied commissions and put more deal of effort into his personal paintings that included landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, experimenting throughout his career with a wide variety of subjects and styles. However, he never did quite attain the personal satisfaction or public recognition that he sought in that arena.
Other commissions were for magazines, advertisements, calendars and posters. During both world wars, he contributed patriotic images to the government and private agencies such as the Red Cross. And he became nationally-known as a muralist, many of which still survive. In 1940 Wyeth accepted a commission from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, New York City, for an ambitious scheme illustrating Pilgrim life. The second phase of this cycle was incomplete at his death and finished by his son Andrew and son-in-law John McCoy.
N.C. Wyeth died when his car stalled on the railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming freight train (his three-year-old grandson and namesake N.C. Wyeth II was also killed) in Chadds Ford on October 19, 1945. His life was too short, but at 62 he had lived long enough to see his children excel in talents he had nurtured—Nathaniel as an inventor; Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew as painters; and Ann as a musician and composer. Andrew Wyeth's son James, also a painter, still continues his grandfather's legacy.
- Biography by Eli Evans
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