Published: April 7, 2016
CONCORD, MASS. — N.C. Wyeth, one of the Twentieth Century’s most popular illustrators, said that Henry David Thoreau’s writings were, “the springhead for almost every move I can make.” He broadly promoted Thoreau’s ideas at a time when most people remembered Thoreau as simply an amateur naturalist. Wyeth’s culminating effort to honor his personal mentor was the creation of an illustrated book of Thoreau’s journal entries, published in 1936 by Houghton Mifflin as Men of Concord and Some Others, as Portrayed in the Journal of Henry David Thoreau.
Now the 12 large paintings Wyeth created to illustrate Men of Concord are reunited for the first time in nearly 80 years at the Concord Museum’s exhibition, “N.C. Wyeth’s Men of Concord,” on view April 15–September 18. The show explores Wyeth’s creative process and Thoreau’s influence on his work. In addition to the paintings, the show includes sketches, studies and additional Thoreau-themed art by Wyeth, plus pen and ink drawings by N.C.’s son Andrew Wyeth, which also appeared in Men of Concord.
An accompanying exhibition at the Concord Free Public Library, “From Thoreau’s Seasons to Men of Concord: N.C. Wyeth Inspired,” also on view April 15–September 18, outlines the decades-long effort by N.C. Wyeth to bring his vision of Thoreau’s philosophy to the public as an illustrated book. That exhibition, “From Thoreau’s Seasons to Men of Concord: N.C. Wyeth Inspired,” was organized by curator Leslie Perrin Wilson of the William Munroe Special Collections.
“N.C. Wyeth was best known for his illustrations for Treasure Island, Kidnapped and other tales of romance and adventure that sparked the imaginations of generations of young readers,” says Christine B. Podmaniczky, consulting curator for the Concord Museum’s exhibition and curator, N.C. Wyeth collections and historic properties, at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. “In a much different vein, the Men of Concord commission provided Wyeth with the opportunity to illustrate something more profound and personal. Wyeth understood the wholeness of Thoreau’s vision — the interconnection of life, art and nature.”
Highlights of the Concord Museum exhibition include the 12 panels N.C. Wyeth painted to serve as Men of Concord’s full-color book plates. Images focus on Thoreau’s character sketches of real Concordians and their activities. Also in the show are pen and ink drawings by Andrew Wyeth. N.C. Wyeth enlisted his teenaged son Andrew to draw the pen and ink sketches that enliven the pages of the book, the first time father and son collaborated for publication.
Rounding out the exhibition are examples of Wyeth’s innovative painting process. Charcoal composition drawings were photographed and turned into glass lantern slides. Wyeth projected the slides onto large panels and developed the final painting from the projection. Also in the show is “Walden Pond Revisited,” N.C. Wyeth’s 1942 tempera painting. Although not part of the Men of Concord series, the painting is encyclopedic in its Thoreauvian imagery.
The Concord Free Public Library’s exhibition includes original correspondence between N.C. Wyeth and editors at Houghton Mifflin from the Houghton Library at Harvard University, as well as examples of the commissioned and commercial work (such as Coca-Cola advertisements) which kept Wyeth busy during the period when he longed to create a series of Thoreau paintings for the book he envisioned.
“We are proud to reveal the influence Thoreau’s writings had over Wyeth’s art and life for over 30 years,” explains Leslie Perrin Wilson. “The resulting book, Men of Concord, offered Wyeth the chance to repay his debt to Thoreau by introducing the core elements of Thoreau’s philosophy to new generations.”
“This project is a landmark collaboration between the Concord Museum and the Concord Free Public Library, which have worked closely together for two years on the development of these interrelated exhibitions,” says Peggy Burke, Concord Museum executive director. The exhibitions are accompanied by two supporting catalogs and programming.
These shows lead off the worldwide celebration of the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth in 2017. The Concord Museum is at 200 Lexington Road and the library is at 129 Main Street.
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