Say the name Newell Convers Wyeth, and most conjure up the swashbuckling illustrations of Treasure Island, King Arthur or Last of the Mohicans,
but N.C. Wyeth also enjoyed an artistic career apart from his commercial endeavors. A new, small but well selected exhibition at Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum showcases
Wyeth’s oils, many of which depict the artist’s private world on the Maine coast in and around Port Clyde. The founder of a now-three-generation dynasty of iconic
American painters (including Andrew and Jamie Wyeth), N.C. Wyeth was born in 1882 and until his death in 1945, was associated with many of the early 20th century modernist
movements in American art.
Born in Needham, Massachsetts, to a family with pre-Revolutionary roots on the paternal side and literary connections to Thoreau and Longfellow
on the maternal, he studied illustration with George Noyes and Charles Reed and then went on to become a pupil of Howard Pyle, then considered the dean of American
illustrators. From Pyle, Wyeth acquired a respect for historical accuracy, but preferred history cloaked in drama, theatricality, and romance.
In 1903 the twenty-year-old Wyeth had his first cover appear on the Saturday Evening Post, and this launched a highly
successful career in commercial art. He married and settled in Chadds Ford, in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine, where he and his
wife Carolyn raised five children. Wyeth gradually moved away from the Western themes which distinguished his early
illustrations to paintings of classic literature, creating famous series for Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, Kidnapped, King Artthur, The Yearling, and Rip Van Winkle
among others. His genre paintings also graced the covers of popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Monthly, the Ladies Home Journal, Century, and McClure’s in
the golden age of print magazines.
Increasingly after 1914, Wyeth struggled to devote time to his private painting and often was tormented by the ramifications of
his own commercial success. His oils took their cue first from Impressionism, and later from the American genre painting of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, the Romanticism of
Winslow Homer, and finally from other modernist movements such as Cubism and the Fauves, especially as reinterpreted by American artists like Marsden Hartley.
In the 1930s Wyeth purchased an old sea captain’s home in the tiny coastal hamlet of Port Clyde, Maine, named it Eight Bells
after Homer’s painting, and brought his family there each summer thereafter, thereby establishing the Wyeth connection
to Maine. He was killed when a derelict freight train struck his automobile at a railway crossing in Chadds Ford in 1945. At the
time of his death, he was at work on an ambitious commission of murals for Metropolitan Life Insurance in Plymouth, MA, and he
had been honored as a fine artist by acceptance into the National Academy and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
The more than a dozen large scale oils at the Farnsworth’s Wyeth Center span the two decades between 1917-1937 and give
an excellent account of Wyeth’s experiments as a painter, as well as a subtle glimpse into the close-knit private world in which he
worked. Wyeth’s subjects are nature in its seasonal shifts, the sea in its many mercurial moods, and his home refuge of Port
Clyde. His characters are the plain folk who were his neighbors – the hardworking fishermen, sea captains and housewives who
called this rocky windswept village their home, as well as the other creatures such as the gulls, crows, and sheep who shared
the St. Georges Penninsula – all depicted with a blend of knowing intimacy and objectivity. The canvasses are large; the brush work vigorous; the surface texture minimal.
Compositional elements are dramatically chosen with arresting angles, jarring geometrics, and unique perspectives, and always
there is an air of the painter’s awe as he steps back from the scene and lets the image take on its own life.
One of the earliest paintings in the show is Captain Teel Passes (1917), which reveals the old seaman walking past a gray vertical
house that occupies the foreground. There is a starkness to the composition and the landscape – a sparseness that matches the
tough old salt whose features (like so many others in N.C. Wyeth’s paintings) are blurred into a kind of universality. A
similar approach is seen in the oil study for Fisherman and His Wife. These are again studies of Teel and his spouse – both
faceless and defined by their dark clothing and strong geometric solidity in a composition that reminds of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. It is, however, the row of gulls neatly aligned
atop the roof which offers the whimsical complementary by making the human actors a mere fragment of the overall scene.
Other “portraits” in the exhibition include The Fisherman’s Family (1933) – a grouping of a grim couple with a little girl in
the foreground, all framed by the linear angles of lobster traps. As with so many of these human studies, the people are only
apportion of the theme, integrated as they are into the embrace of nature and the symbols of their toil.
The two far more personal portraits are of Ann Reading (1930) and Portrait of the Artist. The first depicts the artist’s daughter
clothed in flowing summer white on a sunny porch in Port Clyde, immersed in a book and a tiny Boston Terrier sits at her feet.
The second is a dramatic look at son Andrew perched on a rocky promontory, painting the turbulent sea.
A different kind of portrait, but portraits nonetheless, are the paintings of inanimate structures that Wyeth makes his primary
subjects, but even these houses appear to have a soulfulness that emerges under scrutiny. The Morris House (1937) is an
image of his neighbor’s dwelling on Horse Point Road in Port Clyde, in which the house’s two occupants are shown, somewhat
incidentally, in the front yard, while the dark house itself dominates the canvas. The house is a structure as weathered
and yet as forceful as its setting and its inhabitants. Another is entitled My Grandfather’s House (1929) and shows a large
yellow structure in the snow. The house itself dwarfs the dark figure shoveling snow in the foreground or the dog playing
in the drifts.
Perhaps the most famous of all these house portraits is Eight Bells (1936), a painting of the rambling white gabled structure on
a hill above the Port Clyde harbor. What is fascinating here is the slight aerial perspective that allows the viewer to look down on
the house as well as the cove and gives the entire setting a feeling of being timelessly suspended in the rhythm of nature.
Like Eight Bells, other canvasses like Dying Winter (1934) absent mankind entirely. It captures the vibrancy of the cold
season. Three crows line the fence and neutral tones part the white snow suggesting the pulsating earth beneath. And then there is the striking view of Port Clyde (1925) with its panoramic
sweep and its quasi-folklike rendering of the houses and water with two-dimensional linearity.
Among the most dynamic paintings in the collection, however, are those canvasses that portray the working men of Port Clyde. Herring (1935) shows the fishermen harvesting the tiny,
wiggling, iridescent alewives. The dinghy itself forms the sweeping diagonal that bisects the canvas; the muscled
fishermen either have their backs to the viewer or, like the other portraits, are faceless – their energy evident in the powerful
motion of their labor. Gulls flock hungrily overhead, vying with the men and fish for the lion’s share of attention. A similar animation is present in Cleaning Fish (1933), while an earlier
untitled work shows lobstermen in the top third of canvas organized in triangles and enveloped in a white haze that speaks to the influence of the American Impressionists.
Coupled with this impressive collection of N.C. Wyeth’s oils is a small exhibition in the lower galleries of Wyeth artifacts in the
collection of the late Charles and Julie Cawley. Among these artifacts are quite a few plates for N.C. Wyeth’s most famous Treasure Island series. Revisiting these after spending time
with the artist’s private oils proves an instructive comparison. The illustrations are masterworks in their own right, but in many
ways, very very different in inspiration. They are detailed, accurately costumed, staged with the master hand or theatre
director and practiced eye of a set designer; they are narrative in impulse and virtually burst with dual power of the word and the
image. Despite their small scale (though they were initially created as large canvasses), they fill the page - and the room - with energy.
In contrast the paintings are quiet, introspective, sometimes even reticent. That is until you stand before them in the same
contemplative spirit. Then, like the vast coastal landscape of Maine from which they take their inspiration, they begin to ebb
and flow into the viewer’s consciousness. And different as they appear at first glance, one also detects similarities in technique:
N.C. Wyeth’s affinity for unusual compositional angles and perspectives, his ability to animate the subject whatever it is; his
skill in finding the drama and the romance in the moment. The characters in the personal oils are Wyeth’s very own - his family,
friends, neighbors and the sea, the fields, and the creatures who share his world – rather than the heroes of romance. But in his
hands these come to life with a compelling iconography and mythology of their own. Like the works of his son Andrew and
grandson Jamie, N.C. Wyeth’s paintings offer a glimpse into a private universe that evokes in so many ways a lost place and time in our collective American consciousness.
N.C. Wyeth Painter remains on view at the Farnsworth
Museum, Rockland, ME until December 31, 2016.