Scoop on Wyeth Is That He Was A Fine Artist

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The New York Sun

A newsworthy new look at N. C. Wyeth, patriarch of the dynasty of artists so associated with Maine, has just gone up at the Portland Museum — and it puts paid to the notion that Wyeth was but an illustrator. He certainly is that, having become well-known and beloved for his illustrations of, among other classic tales, “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped.” Though his illustrations are magnificent paintings, he struggled all his life with the perception that illustration was a step inferior to true fine art.

“I have come to one conclusion,” Wyeth is quoted in the catalog as saying, “and that is, painting and illustration cannot be mixed — one cannot merge from one into the other.” He’s too modest by half, I say. Rembrandt illustrated Bible stories. Winslow Homer did illustrations. Edward Hopper made advertisements. The dauntless Daumier was an illustrator par excellence. All were fine artists with a narrative content. So why did Wyeth have such difficulty bridging the gap between applied and fine art?


The importance of this remarkable show in Portland is that it demonstrates that Wyeth ultimately succeeded in creating fine art. The building of the studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, provided impetus for developing his artistic identity. In this exhibition, a large photo-mural of the interior of the studio gives a lively illusion of being in the Wyeth working space, which turns out to be a wiley way of drawing visitors into N. C.’s world, even if his first illustrations were of the West, cowboys, and horses, evocative of Remington.

Wyeth’s teacher and mentor, Howard Pyle, had sent him West to experience frontier life first-hand. He was also painting self-portraits in a limited palette, while at the same time knocking off a picture of the new studio in bright Impressionist colors and brushwork. One glimpses reverence for Old Masters combined with the color and light of Impressionism, reflecting Boston School masters like Tarbell — also Sargent. Wyeth’s non-commercial work seemed to be more and more landscape.


When he gained a house at Port Clyde, Maine, Wyeth joined a new tradition of Winslow Homer, Robert Henri, and George Bellows. They were artists inspired by rugged New Englanders living close the sea in Maine. After his mother’s death, Wyeth created the extraordinary portrait of her in the kitchen, with his grandfather seen through the window trudging to his house next door. (The painting of his grandfather’s house buried in snow hangs next to it). Distortions of perspective and fractured planes of light lends an expressionist feeling that is almost hallucinatory.

Wyeth eventually began to take on commissions for large murals. One in the show is “In a Dream I Meet General Washington,” which was executed in 1930. Wyeth nearly fell from a scaffolding while working on a mural of Washington. Shortly after, he had a dream of witnessing the Battle of Brandywine, which took place near his home. He imagined in his sleep that General Washington on a white horse narrated troop movements to him. The artist depicts himself on the scaffolding in the act of painting, while Andrew Wyeth as a small boy works on a drawing below.

Elements of modernism, cubism, art deco, abstraction enlivened N.C.’s style but never were fully embraced. He gathered strength from the forceful representation of people and places like the emerging Regionalist artists. Wyeth learned from his son-in-law a renaissance technique, egg tempera, that was being revived and passed it on to his son, Andrew. It’s a shame more artists haven’t used egg-tempera; it’s such a rich and lustrous paint. N.C.’s self portrait in the medium is one of America’s great paintings in the genre.


The most powerful paintings at Portland are those done wholly or in part in tempera: “Island Funeral,” 1939; “Dark Harbor Fishermen,” 1943; “The Doryman,” 1944; and another 1944 masterpiece, “The War Letter.” With these N. C. Wyeth put his work unambiguously among the fine arts at last. The Portland Museum predicted that this show would “reposition” N.C. Wyeth “in the broader context of early 20th-century American art history.” It’s not often that a museum lands a scoop. In this case, mission accomplished.


Images: “The War Letter,”1944, tempera and oil on hardboard; “Noon Hour,” date unknown, a preliminary drawing in charcoal on tan paper from which Wyeth would make a lantern slide to project onto the panel for tracing to transfer the composition for painting. Both images are courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Mr. Babb, whose own masterpiece “Copley Plunge” was recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is a contributing editor of The New York Sun. “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” will be up through January 12 at the Portland, Maine, Museum of Art.

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