Published: January 9, 2001
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Timed to coincide with this year’s presidential election campaign and arriving in the nation’s capital during presidential inauguration week, “One Nation: ” is an intriguing and thought-provoking exhibition. Assembled at the seat of national power are paintings and drawings by family patriarch N.C. and grandson James Wyeth that reflect changing views of American patriotism and political figures over the past century. In effect, the show challenges viewers in this most political of towns to formulate their own definitions of “patriot” and “pirate.”
Organized by the Farnswoth Art Museum in Rockland, Me., whose Wyeth Center is a major repository of art and archival materials of N.C., Andrew and James Wyeth, “One Nation” could not have come at a more opportune time. As the nation ponders the ramifications of the closest Presidential election in its history – and its traumatic post-elections aftermaths – this exhibition helps place recent developments in a broader historical context. George W. Bush, Al Gore and their supporters could benefit from seeing it.
“One Nation” is sponsored by MBNA America, whose generous support has contributed greatly to the Farnsworth’s expansion in recent years and helped strengthen its reputation as one of the country’s finest regional museums.
The exhibition, which opened at the Farnsworth last August, will be on view in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, January 16 to 26. After that it will travel to the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Conn. (February 15-April 30); Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Penn. (June 2-September 3); Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. (October 11-January 6, 2002); and a West Coast venue to be announced.
N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), America’s greatest illustrator as well as an accomplished easel painter, dedicated his career to depicting American subjects in a fresh, energetic manner uninfluenced by European art – “true, solid American subjects – nothing foreign about them,” as he put it in 1903.
Reflecting times in which unconditional loyalty to country was taken for granted and the American flag was a sacred symbol of freedom, N.C. executed works that encapsulated those very American qualities. As television anchorman Tom Brokaw points out in his catalogue essay, the patriarch of the Wyeth clan “was a man of the first half of the century, roughly from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when Americans seemed to be framed in red, white and blue bunting and the background music was Yankee Doodle Dandy or Kate Smith singing God Bless America.
N.C.’s lifelong veneration for America’s historical traditions, growing out of his New England heritage and strengthened by his Chadds Ford residency in the history-rich Brandywine Valley, manifested itself in idealized, heroic images of such larger-than-life personalities as Paul Revere, George Washington, Nathan Hale, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones and Abraham Lincoln. He painted stalwart views of Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant and action-packed renditions of Civil War combat, suggesting valor and patriotism on both sides.
Commissioned by the government during World War I to create recruiting and propaganda posters, Wyeth’s output ranged from images of brave doughboys helping their wounded mates, in “WWI Poster” (1918), to dramatic paintings of terrified Huns surrendering to gun-toting American infantrymen in “Kamerad!” (1919).
Along with other Americans, N.C. was horrified by stories of atrocities committed by the German Army. He responded with vivid, impassioned images, such as “The Abdication of Attila” (1917), done for Life magazine, that suggested that Kaiser Wilhelm had outstripped the infamous Attila the Hun as the epitome of “supreme evil” and the “arch-tyrant” of history. Pondering an offer from the War Department to become an official artist at the Western Front, Wyeth remarked, “I wouldn’t mind a crack at a Boche or two, and would be tickled to death if I could disembowel their divine leader….”
Responding with equal patriotic fervor to the challenge of World War II, Wyeth underscored the determination of Uncle Sam and our citizen army in “Amateurs at War: The American Soldier in Action” (1943) and the heroism of GIs in the Pacific in “Marines Landing on the Beach” (1944). He recognized the contributions of farmers to the Allied effort in “Soldiers of the Soil” (1942), an illustration for a Brown and Bigelow calendar, and in another calendar work, “Our Emblem” (1944), reflected the symbolism of the American eagle protecting a tranquil New England hamlet.
Wyeth’s colorful “Buy War Bonds” (1942), featuring an assertive Uncle Sam clutching Old Glory and urging on planes overhead and infantrymen on the ground, helped the Treasury Department sell a lot of bonds to back the war effort. One poster sold $200,000 worth of bonds, while another took in $1 million, according to Wyeth biographer David Michaelis.
In a tempera-on-panel, “The War Letter” (1941) he depicted his parents on the bucolic grounds of their home in Needham, Mass. As his mother reads a letter from the morning mail and a newspaper describing overseas developments lies next to her, his father looks on. It is a poignant vignette reflecting keen homefront concern about unfolding wartime events.
To N.C. Wyeth, the choice between good and evil, freedom and tyranny in both World Wars was clear. His characteristically bold, forceful images, imbued with old-fashioned patriotism, helped spur an embattled America on to victory in both conflicts.
Born in 1946, James Browning Wyeth came of age when the meaning of patriotism was clouded by the traumas of the Vietnam War and the scandals of Watergate. Working in an era of turmoil and questioning of governmental authority, his art encompassed both marching off to war and marching in protest.
One of James’s early masterworks, “Draft Age” (1965) depicts a childhood friend as a defiant Vietnam-era teenager resplendent in dark sunglasses and black leather jacket in a suitably insouciant pose.
Two years later Wyeth painstakingly composed a haunting, posthumous “Portrait of President John F. Kennedy” (1967) that seems to catch the martyred Chief Executive in a moment of agonized indecision. As Wyeth Center curator Lauren Raye Smith points out, Wyeth “did not deify the slain president, [but] on the contrary made him seem almost too human.”
Based on hours of study and sketching of JFK’s brothers Robert and Edward – documented by insightful studies in the exhibition – the final, pensive portrait seemed too realistic to family members and friends. “His brother Robert,” writes Smith in the exhibition catalogue, “reportedly felt uneasy about this depiction, and said it reminded him of the President during the Bay of Pigs invasion.”
In spite of these misgivings, James’s JFK likeness has been reproduced frequently and is one of the highlights of this show. The poignancy, appeal and perceptiveness of this portrait, painted when the youngest Wyeth was 21 years old, makes one wish he would do more portraits of important public figures.
James himself feels he is at his best painting people he knows well, as exemplified by his vibrant “Portrait of Jean Kennedy Smith” (1972), which captures the vitality of the slain President’s handsome sister.
He did paint a portrait of Jimmy Carter for the January 1977 man-of-the-year cover of Time magazine, showing the casually dressed President-elect as a straightforward character posed under a flag-draped water tower next to the family peanut plant in Plains, Ga. James recalls that Carter had one Secret Service agent guarding him as he posed outdoors, a far cry from the protection our Chief Executives require today.
As a participating artist in the “Eyewitness to Space” program organized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in the late 1960s, Wyeth deftly recorded in a series of watercolors his eyewitness observations of dramatic spacecraft launchings and more mundane scenes associated with the space program.
Commissioned by Harper’s Magazine to cover the 1974 congressional hearings and trials of Watergate figures, James executed a series of perceptive and now evocative sketches that recall those dark chapters in our history. Memorable images include a scowling John Ehrlichman, a hollow-eyed Bob Haldeman, an owlish Charles Colson, a focused Congressman Peter Rodino, a grim visaged Father/Congressman Robert Drinan and vignettes of the press and various courtroom activities. An 11-by-14-inch pencil sketch of the unflappable Judge John Sirica is especially well done. These “images are powerful as historical records,” observes Smith, “and as lyrically journalistic impressions of events that changed the nation forever.”
Wyeth’s sketch of early-morning crowds lined up outside the Supreme Court building hoping to hear the Watergate case, with the ubiquitous TV cameramen looking on, is reminiscent of recent scenes as the high court grappled with the Bush-Gore contest.
The Wyeth family penchant for whimsy and enigmatic images is evident in “Islanders” (1990), showing two of James’s friends, wearing goofy hats, sitting on the porch of a small Monhegan Island (Me.) cottage draped with a large American flag. Mixing the serious symbolism of Old Glory with the irreverent appearance of the two men, James has created a puzzling but interesting composition.
Affinities in the vigorous, bold painting styles of N.C. and James Wyeth are apparent throughout the exhibition, as are contrasts in the ways they responded to issues of their day as well as similar subjects, such as the White House. Both clearly appreciate the historic significance of the structure, but have depicted it in quite different ways.
In a 1930 poster for the Pennsylvania Railroad, reproduced in 1971 as a Hallmark Presidential Christmas card, N.C. showed the building of the White House under the watchful supervision of a noble-profiled Washington and a gesturing architect, James Hoban. “The building itself,” notes Smith, “bearing a resemblance to the Parthenon, is glowing in the spotlight of the sun evoking the promise of a new democracy.”
Painting White House Christmas cards for President and Mrs Ronald Reagan, James first showed the familiar mansion as a homey place, with a single light burning in the Reagans’ bedroom on a snowy evening in “Christmas at the White House” (1981). In 1984 he chose a view with Old Glory flying over a close-up, snowed-in image of the North Portico, in “Christmas Morning at the White House.”
While at work on the official portrait of the White House as part of its bicentennial anniversary, James Wyeth spent a great deal of time on the grounds of the mansion, examining it from all angles and at all hours. “It’s just so amazing that this is the home of the leader of the free world,” he says, “yet it is really not a large structure. Visitors come expecting to see something on the scale of Versailles, and here is this comparatively small house on the hill, but it is the center of power for this country.”
Of particular interest to many will be James’s depiction of a building that has become increasingly familiar since November 7, 2000: the Vice Presidential residence. Painted in 1996 for a Vice Presidential Christmas card, “Vice President’s House” shows the Gores’ black Labrador retriever, Shiloh, frolicking in the snow in front of the dramatically lit Victorian mansion. Washington National Cathedral, looming on the horizon to the left, adds perspective to the setting.
At once a celebration and exploration of how Americans have viewed themselves and their obligations to their country over the last century, “One Nation” offers both visual and intellectual stimulation. In the wake of an election year that will go down in history, it reminds us how close to the public pulse three generations of Wyeth artists have remained.
In light of all that has transpired since Election Day, the confluence of power, politics and patriotism has given this year’s Presidential inauguration special significance. The art of the Wyeths, depicting patriots and pirates over the course of Twentieth Century American history, takes on added meaning and importance in this context.
The exhibition is accompanied by a handsome catalogue, with the same title as the show. It is a fully illustrated, 110-page book with essays by Smith, Brokaw and Michaelis. Published by Bullfinch Press/Little Brown and Company in association with the Farnsworth Art Museum, it sells for $40 (hardcover) and $29.95 (softcover).
Russell Senate Office Building is on Constitution Avenue between Delaware Avenue and 1st Street, NE, in Washington. For information, 202/224-2115.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm