N.C. Wyeth: A Biography
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Reviewed by
David Michaelis. N. C. Wyeth: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1998.

As a genre, biography is enjoying a particularly rich time today. American painters are especially well-represented, with such recent notable books as Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Jackson Pollack: An American Saga (1990), John Loughery’s John Sloan: Painter and Rebel (1995), and Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (1995). A worthwhile addition to this list is David Michaelis’s N. C. Wyeth, which argues that from Howard Pyle through N. C. Wyeth, down through Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth, exists a dynasty of American art that continues to inspire discussion and controversy in the culture of our nation.

N. C. Wyeth (1882–1945) was a larger than life painter who spent the bulk of his life and talent in illustration, specifically in creating the heroic and romantic paintings for Scribner’s Illustrated Classics, such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. He tormented himself unduly over [End Page 308] whether he was wasting his talent in illustration; at the same time, he continued in it to support his extended family.

Wyeth’s talent was in dramatizing his subjects, at a time when the characters of American culture (General Washington, the Western cowboy, the Pilgrims) could be portrayed as heroic; today his paintings can be seen as sentimental or over-wrought, yet they were energetic, muscular, optimistic, and positive. Even his landscapes and skies portrayed a muscular positivism, and the figures of literature, such as Robinson Crusoe and Robin Hood, were made to enter the Yankee myth. By focusing on the climactic moment, Wyeth set a standard for illustration of books.

Reared in Needham, Massachusetts, with a hardworking yet distant father and an emotionally dependent mother, Newell Convers Wyeth entered the art scene at a particularly auspicious moment. Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) helped to popularize the cowboy as subject (which the soon-to-be growing movie industry also took up), and the widely circulated illustrated magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly, and McClure’s Magazine, provided a hungry market for illustrations. At the age of twenty, Wyeth came to Wilmington, Delaware, to study with Howard Pyle (1853–1911), a leading illustrator, writer, and painter. The Howard Pyle School of Art taught a dozen selected students at a time, who worked closely with the master and listened to his lectures in the nearby countryside of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The regimen was guaranteed to imprint the students upon Pyle, who set them off against one another and quickly picked Wyeth as his favorite and heir. Pyle was their entrée into the publishing world of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. He also encouraged his students to take adventurous tours out West, which provided ample source material and inspiration for their landscape-heavy paintings. Wyeth’s first published pictures made strong use of the cowboy theme.

Pyle’s greeting to his young student was, “My boy, you have come here for help. Then you must live your best and work hard” (49). Though he eventually broke with his teacher, Wyeth considered Pyle early on as a father figure. Wyeth found his wife Carolyn in Wilmington, and likewise made Chadds Ford the central location for his studio and growing family, which came to number four girls and two boys. Of these, the first died in infancy, three were painters (including Henriette Hurd, born 1907, and Andrew, born 1919), one daughter a composer, and Nathaniel was an engineer. Much of the family’s activities are still centered in Chadds Ford, with archives and museum, fifty years after N. C.’s death. [End Page 309]

Wyeth worked rapidly and hard during his entire life to support his growing family. Illustrations for a Scribner’s edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in 1911 provide a good example. Wyeth’s $2,500 fee enabled him to buy land for his new home and studio in Chadds Ford. In addition to endpapers, title page, and book cover, Wyeth painted fourteen 47” x 38” paintings, in oil on canvas, beginning April 3, 1911, and finishing...