Published: September 5, 2000
PORTLAND, ME. – Anyone who grew up with the dramatic children’s Illustrated Classic series published by Charles Scribner and Sons, which included Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Westward Ho! and The Last of the Mohicans, already knows the brilliant and magnetic images of one of America’s best loved illustrators – N.C. Wyeth. Now the public will have a chance to view the work that N.C. Wyeth valued above his illustrations: his art for art’s sake.
Through October 15, the Portland Museum of Art estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 pairs of eyes will be musing over the many canvases and selected drawings displayed throughout five first floor galleries in which “N.C. Wyeth: ” is on display. Choked by early and profound success in the field of illustration, Newell Convers Wyeth increasingly craved time to paint for himself. It is this “” that is alluded to in the title of the show. One is also mindful of additional years that N.C. Wyeth would have painted had not his life been tragically cut short by a train accident.
While illustrations fairly flew off his brush – he created multitudinous works for publication during his lifetime (1882-1945) – N.C. Wyeth never worked harder than when he strove to distill the essence of fine art in the form of landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, and portraits. He experimented with impressionism and modernism, but realism remained his primary vocabulary. He was never satisfied with his enormous success as an illustrator.
The 56 works in the show offer a bounty of both his illustrative and personal work, much of which has never before been exhibited in the state of Maine. By viewing both types of work one can get a sense of a man who was divided between illustration and art – the wall between the two being fixed by N.C. Wyeth himself. He plunged into the task of bringing light, form, and color to the writing of world-class authors like Jules Verne, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, but at the same time longed to paint (and did paint) non-collaborative, deeply-felt paintings for himself.
The first large gallery contains about a dozen masterful illustrations, including a 1911 painting of bloodthirsty pirates hoisting the Jolly Roger for the cover of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, considered by many to be one of the artist’s finest groups of illustrations.
Also on display are first editions of a few of the Scribner books. This is helpful, because the published book was how millions of people came to know the paintings of N.C. Wyeth. However, not all of the reproductions of the time faithfully captured his color and clarity. Because of printing problems, good reproductions were not to be taken for granted. The vibrant color and large scale of the originals – complete with billowing clouds, unresolved suspense, and superb compositions – will likely stop the exhibition visitor in his/her tracks. When reduced to inches and placed with the text of the books for which they were created, the powerful images beckon visitors to ponder precipitous outcomes. One must read on, but it is hard to tear the eyes away from Wyeth’s moment in time.
Perhaps you are in possession of a first edition Scribner Illustrated Classic and will hunt for it in your library at the first opportunity. Perhaps you will revisit the artist’s great paintings, as you flip through the old pages. If not so fortunate, you might be interested to know that Wyeth’s wife, Carolyn B. Wyeth, renewed her husband’s copyright in 1947, two years after the artist’s death, and that many of the original classics have been reissued and are available at the Portland Museum of Art store and other places. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York City, made new transparencies from the original paintings by N.C. Wyeth, borrowing from museums and private collectors, and have reissued The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, and The Yearling. The paintings are beautifully reproduced.
Also for sale at the museum store is N.C. Wyeth, a superb biography written by David Michaelis and published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998. Anyone reading this book will appreciate the accomplishments of N.C. Wyeth on a whole new level. If you can read it before the trip to Portland, so much the better.
The “N.C. Wyeth: ” exhibition includes the cover sketch for The Saturday Evening Post (“Bronco Buster”), painted in 1902, just four months after beginning his studies with Howard Pyle, the reigning dean of American illustration. Pyle accepted Wyeth as a full-fledged student the same month that the cover was published, beginning a long mentor/protégé relationship that was characterized by both mutual adoration and resentment at different times. Pyle was hugely influential to the young Wyeth.
“Bronco Buster,” one of three Western images in the show, was Wyeth’s first major breakthrough in illustration and is one of many Western paintings that would establish Wyeth as a painter of Western themes, among other things. He was sent to the West by Scribner’s Sons in 1904 and again in 1906 by The Outing Magazine. Wyeth immersed himself in his surroundings, even taking a job as an express mail rider when his funds were stolen.
In an illustration for Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1913, one can see a young man poignantly straddling a crevice in the rocks, with seawater streaming through the two rocks on which his feet are placed. On one side a hand is clenched in a fist and on the other side it is open as if in caution or alarm. Wyeth has put the boy in a survival stance, prepared to fight or flee. The title/caption reads “On The Island Of Earraid (but the second day passed; and as long as the light lasted I kept a bright look-out for boats on the sound or men passing on the Ross).”
When Wyeth painted “The Magic Pool” he had no specific narrative in mind according to the exhibition curator, Daniel O’Leary, museum director. The painting shows a lone Indian drinking from a perfectly quiet black pool of water. The rocks have a cool bluish cast, with bright orange and red foliage resting on them. A huge dark tree trunk anchors the top left of the picture. The Indian seems unaware of any observers, as he submerges his lips to drink as would other forest dwellers. He is beautiful and vulnerable at the same time. The red color of his loincloth suggests that he too might pass, just like the fallen leaves scattered about him on the rocks. Only the rings of water with the Indian’s mouth at the center show us movement. When The Outing Magazine saw the picture they used it for the frontispiece of the poem “The Indian in his Solitude,” June 1907, vol. L, number 3.
Sometimes able to turn down the publishers and editors who came clamoring to him for more and more illustrations. Wyeth carved out enough time to give the public an idea of his own values and ideals in art. The larger part of the exhibition is devoted to these paintings and drawings.
N.C. Wyeth adored the writings of Henry David Thoreau, and made Nature central to his art, both before and after he read Thoreau’s Walden in 1912. Most of his non-narrative personal paintings were inspired by his favorite places: Needham, Mass., where he was born and raised in a family of four brothers; Chadds Ford, Pa., where he built his studio and “homestead” and raised his own three daughters and two sons (including Andrew Wyeth); and Port Clyde, Me., where he spent summers at “Eight Bells,” a former sea captain’s home which he purchased with his friend artist Sydney M. Chase in 1920. Wyeth named the Port Clyde house after a painting by Winslow Homer, whom he greatly admired.
“Black Spruce Ledge” figures big in the show. There are two drawings, one a charcoal and the other a pencil sketch (both 1939); and two paintings, one in tempera (1939) and the other in oil and tempera (1941). Each features basically the same view – a long lobsterman in front of a back-lit rock formation topped with windswept spruce trees. The works exude an aura of serenity. An unseen light source illuminates the sparkling blue water, the lobsterman, his boat, and the rocks and clouds. The earlier painting has more visible brush strokes, lighter color, and more movement in the water. The latter painting has more intense contrast between light and dark, a slightly more subdued palette, and a smoother finish. The artist has expressed both strength and vitality in these reverent pictures.
Men at work on the sea appealed to Wyeth. In “Sun Glint,” another lobsterman is tending to his trap. More beautiful, the sparkling Maine water surface ruffles in a light wind. One can just about hear the water lapping on the sides of the boat and the nearby rocks. As with “Black Spruce Ledge,” the experience is kept universal. These are not men with identifiable faces.
In 1996, Elizabeth B. Noyce set this show in motion with her bequest of “Dark Harbor Fisherman” to the Portland Museum of Art. During the next four years, curator of the exhibition Daniel O’Leary gathered 56 works from 33 different sources. This included a dozen museums, many private collectors, members of the Wyeth family, and ten anonymous collectors.
O’Leary was convinced that the private work of N.C. Wyeth should be “explored further and placed in juxtaposition with his dynamic illustrations to underscore the extraordinary range his art achieved,” as he states in the 64-page exhibition catalog N.C. Wyeth: , published by the Portland Art Museum.
The exhibition catalog has 26 color images of works in the show plus some previously unpublished photos of Wyeth on Monhegan Island in addition to other photographs. It is written by Daniel O’Leary, Linda Bean Folkers (one of the show’s major lenders), and Lorenza Coffin, who is a manager of special projects at the museum.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square; 207/773-ARTS or 800/639-4067. The museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 10 am to 9 pm on Thursday and Friday. Through Columbus Day, October 9, the museum will also be open on Monday from 10 am to 5 pm.
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