An Essay by John Lechner
Artists frequently turn to the old masters for inspiration, and for illustrators, few fit that description as well as N.C. Wyeth. I’ve been a fan of N.C. Wyeth since childhood, and not just because we both grew up in the town of Needham, Massachusetts. Unlike previous illustrators, who designed their compositions neatly on the page, Wyeth’s paintings leapt right out of the book, with a vibrancy and power that made you feel the passion and pain of their subjects.
Born in 1881, Newell Convers Wyeth studied with the legendary illustrator Howard Pyle, who founded his own school in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, and taught dozens of great illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and Frank Schoonover. Howard Pyle was the grand master of his day, best known for his beautiful ink drawings for classic adventures like Robin Hood and King Arthur. He inspired his students to be passionate about their art, and look to nature for inspiration. One of his students, Alan True, recalled their teacher telling them, “Throw your heart into the picture and then jump in after it,” and, “Make your pictures live.” This enthusiasm was passed on to his students, especially the young Wyeth, whose own enthusiasm surpassed even his teacher’s.
Wyeth had an energy and passion for life and art that was unbounded, and he threw himself into both. He was inspired by nature, and by the great masters of the past (particularly Rembrandt). He loved history, and collected costumes and artifacts to use in his paintings. Settling in the Brandywine Valley, he became a friendly fixture around Chadd’s Ford, where he settled with his family. He was very successful as a commercial artist, though he yearned throughout his life to be recognized as a fine art painter, since illustration was thought then (as now) to be somewhat less important than fine art. Yet this constant yearning served to lift his illustrations beyond commercial works, and made them into true works of art.
To illustrate the unique qualities of his work, I would like to call attention to the first series of illustrations he did for Scribner’s Classics – those for the book Treasure Island, which are perhaps my favorite Wyeth paintings of all time. If you are ever in the area of Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, these paintings are on display at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, and they are well worth the visit. Measuring roughly thirty-eight by forty-seven inches, these massive oil paintings are a sight to behold. Painted when the artist was only twenty-eight years old, they are bold and vigorous in their use of paint, often revealing the raw canvas beneath transparent washes of sepia. Yet there is a delicacy in other places, where a few brushstrokes deftly define a hand, a face, a piece of cloth. The dexterity of the artist, visible in the books, is magnified upon seeing the works in person.
The color palette is generally limited to brown and ochre, with occasional splashes of blue and red. The paintings are abstract in the best way, with shadows and shapes that strike boldly across the canvas. Characters’ faces are often in shadow, with few details visible; and yet, the viewer can always tell what the characters are feeling. The scene where Jim Hawkins says goodbye to his mother is a stirring example, with the young boy standing in shadow, leaving his mother and the sunshine of his home behind, as he steps towards his unknown adventure. Though you can’t quite see his face, the range of emotion expressed in the painting is remarkable.
As an illustrator of books, Wyeth was very sensitive to the author’s words, and his philosophy was to avoid depicting scenes that the author describes in detail (what was the point?), and instead illuminate smaller moments that are only briefly mentioned, in order to enhance the story. The resulting illustrations are neither trivial nor superfluous, but help develop the characters and advance the story. He managed to choose just the right moment, which is an art in itself. (The scene where Jim Hawkins leaves home is only given one sentence in the book.) And by depicting characters with minimal detail, he did not compete with the author’s own descriptions, and allowed the reader’s imagination to blend with the pictures and become one.
Another brilliant quality of Wyeth’s paintings is his use of light – moonlight illuminating the pirate Blind Pew, a shaft of sunlight that finds Ben Gunn in the forest, an unseen candle that illuminates the conspirators, and so many other examples. The source of light is always deliberate and strategic in a Wyeth painting, never an afterthought. The artist often painted outdoors, roaming the fields with his easel and canvas, so he knew well the subtle variations of natural light. He used light to extablish character, setting, time of day, and dramatic mood, all while striking a bold composition. Light remained a key ingredient in all his later works.
Texture is another Wyeth hallmark. He used oil paints, and his brushstrokes are plainly visible on the canvas – and yet a thousand different textures spring from these simple marks, almost by magic. The illustration of Bill Bones standing on the cliff is a perfect example. The paint is simple and unadorned, and on close inspection it doesn’t appear to be anything but paint – and yet when you see the printed page, the weathered cloak, the brass telescope, the rough stones are all appear to have their own substance, asserting themselves more clearly than if than if every detail had been rendered. It is the work of a master painter.
There are many other qualities in Wyeth’s artwork, more than I can describe in this short essay – the strength and personality of his characters (often drawn from people he knew), the attention to historical detail, the masterful compositions that were constructed to heighten the drama and highlight the themes in the book. His paintings also possess a kind of spatial immediacy, the feeling that you are right there in the scene. This comes from what I call “close perspective”, in which the point of view is set very close to the action. Wyeth’s use of real people and props surely contributed to this quality, for it allowed him to paint his subjects in real space. (Incidentally, this is why painting from photographs so often results in a flatter scene – the camera lens tends to flatten perspective, and the photographer usually has to stand far back to capture the whole scene.)
Of course, any work of art is more than just the sum of its parts – everything must work together and strive for a greater purpose, and these paintings do so brilliantly. N.C. Wyeth always aimed high, and sadly became discouraged in later life, believing his work did not measure up to his own ambition, despite awards and accolades from all sides. He felt he had never truly expressed his own self in his paintings. However, I believe he was mistaken on this point – I think his illustrations, perhaps even more than his fine art paintings, show in their subtlety and subtext the deep inner life and passion of this extraordinary man. The Treasure Island series, taken as a group, could almost be seen as a virtual portrait of the artist as a young man – the boyish Jim Hawkins leaving home just as Wyeth had left Needham; the Benbow inn, modeled after his childhood home; Long John Silver, who bears a resemblance to the artist’s former mentor Howard Pyle, with whom he had a falling out; the passion, the struggle, the ever-present theme of throwing oneself headlong into every new adventure. Even the portrait of Bill Bones on the cliff seems an embodiment of the artist himself, rugged and steadfast, boldly standing firm against a sea of adversaries.
Bones does not survive the tale, but Jim Hawkins does, finally reaching his treasure island, just as Wyeth reached his own youthful pinnacle with the magnificent paintings for this book. Collectively, these seventeen paintings serve not only to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, but also to express the hopes, fears, and life philosophy of the artist himself: to always follow your heart, strive for great things, and never give up. Wyeth spent his whole life chasing his own dream of artistic fulfillment. The irony is that he had already found it at age twenty-eight, hidden in a series of pirate pictures. And his artistry only grew from there.
Wyeth was a great thinker and philosopher (I highly recommend his writings to artists and art teachers), and once gave this advice to an aspiring student: “Forget the commercial aspect of art; your work will inevitably bring you returns in proportion to the ‘heart and soul’ you put into your efforts.”
N.C. Wyeth threw his own heart and soul into his art, and even if only a small part of it actually stuck, it is still a much greater part than many an artist who purports to stretch his or her life literally across the canvas. Friends and family often described him as a “giant” of a man, both physically and mentally. After nearly a hundred years, his work still stands tall, with a strength and vitality that reflects and illuminates the man himself. In an age where visual imagery bombards us daily, his illustrations remain a towering inspiration in their simplicity and depth. These are not only masterful paintings, they also embody the inner life of the artist himself in ways that are both subtle and revealing. And isn’t that the true definition of art?
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N.C. Wyeth, A Biography by David Michaelis, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)
N.C. Wyeth, the Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, by Douglas Allen and Douglas Allen, Jr.
The Wyeths by N.C. Wyeth – The Intimage Correspondence of N.C. Wyeth 1901-1945, Edited by Betsy James Wyeth, (Gambit, 1971)
The Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA