Crystal Bridges proudly announces the arrival of a new family member, of sorts, to our gallery walls – a beautiful work by Newell Convers Wyeth (N.C. for short), the father and grandfather of famed American artists Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth, respectively. N.C. Wyeth’s luminous On the October Trail (A Navajo Family), painted in 1907, comes to us on loan from the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. To learn more about N.C. Wyeth, we share here excerpts from the Brandywine’s excellent biography of the artist, found on their website.
“Newell Convers Wyeth was born on October 22, 1882, in Needham, Massachusetts. Growing up on a farm, he developed a deep love of nature. His mother, the daughter of Swiss immigrants, encouraged his early artistic inclinations in the face of opposition from his father, a descendant of the first Wyeth to arrive in the New World in the mid-17th century. His father encouraged a more practical use of his talents, and young Convers attended Mechanic Arts High School in Boston through May 1899, concentrating on drafting. With his mother’s support he transferred to Massachusetts Normal Art School and there instructor Richard Andrew urged him toward illustration. He studied with Eric Pape and Charles W. Reed and then painted with George L. Noyes in Annisquam, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1901.
“On the advice of two friends, artists Clifford Ashley and Henry Peck, Wyeth decided to travel to Wilmington, Delaware, in October 1902, to join the Howard Pyle School of Art. Howard Pyle, one of the country’s most renowned illustrators, left a teaching position at Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry in Philadelphia to open his own school of illustration in Wilmington. Pyle was an inspired teacher and Wyeth an attentive pupil. The master emphasized the use of dramatic effects in painting and the importance of sound, personal knowledge of one’s subject, teachings Wyeth quickly assimilated and employed throughout his career. The astute young man recognized the value of Pyle’s instruction, writing to his mother just after his arrival, “the composition lecture…opened my eyes more than any talk I ever heard.” (BJW, p. 21) In less than five months, Wyeth successfully submitted a cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post.
“Following Pyle’s maxim to paint only from experience, Wyeth made three trips between 1904 and 1906 to the American West. He spent much of these trips simply absorbing the Western experience which allowed him to paint images that would place him among the top illustrators of his day. By 1907, Wyeth was heralded in Outing Magazine as “one of our greatest, if not our greatest, painter of American outdoor life.” His pictures had appeared in many of the most popular magazines of the period, such as Century, Harper’s Monthly, Ladies’ Home Journal, McClure’s, Outing, and Scribner’s.”
–Courtesy of Brandywine River Museum of Art website.
The painting on loan to Crystal Bridges, On the October Trail (A Navajo Family), is from this time period, painted in 1907. While Scribner’s magazine had published other illustrations and paintings by Wyeth accociated with his western trips, this image was not related to a story or other specific narrative content. Scribner’s decided to publish the image on its own merit due to its captivating beauty and mystery. These early successes at illustration led to an esteemed career for which N.C. Wyeth may best be known.
“In 1911, the publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons engaged Wyeth to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, his first commission in Scribner’s popular series of classic stories. The 17 paintings that make up the set are masterpieces of American illustration. Their size and scale, unusual in illustrations of the period, give the paintings a heroic quality that is apparent even in the greatly reduced reproductions. Within the set of illustrations, Wyeth brilliantly combined action and character study, enriching the story beyond the text. Action and character study are united in each painting to further the narrative beyond the text. In every canvas, his superb sense of color and his ability to mix painterly passages with authentic detail prove him a master of the art. Complex compositions and his skillful use of intense light contrasted with deep shadow contribute to a palpable dramatic tension inherent in the paintings. These pictures made the Wyeth-illustrated edition of Treasure Island a favorite of generations of readers.
“The success of Treasure Island insured Wyeth a long career with Scribner’s, illustrating in succeeding years many classic stories. Among the most famous titles are Kidnapped (1913), The Black Arrow (1916), The Boy’s King Arthur (1917), The Mysterious Island (1918), The Last of the Mohicans (1919), The Deerslayer (1925), and The Yearling (1939). He also created illustrations for other publishers, for books such as Robin Hood (David McKay, 1917); Robinson Crusoe (Cosmopolitan, 1920); Rip Van Winkle (David McKay, 1921); Men of Concord (Houghton-Mifflin, 1936); and Trending Into Maine (Little, Brown, 1938).
“Despite his fame as an illustrator, Wyeth yearned to be known as a painter. The distinction between painting and illustration was an important one, with illustration carrying a pejorative connotation that Wyeth felt keenly all his life. Even though the commissioned work earned him income to support his family, he tried to escape the confines of textual limitations with personal paintings that included landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. From lyrical landscapes in an Impressionist style to powerful portraits of fishermen that recall the work of the American Regionalist artists, Wyeth experimented throughout his career with a wide variety of subjects and styles. However, he never did attain the personal satisfaction or public recognition that he sought.”
–Courtesy of Brandywine River Museum of Art website.
N.C. Wyeth’s son, Andrew, and his grandson, Jamie, would extend his legacy of painting into contemporary times, ensuring an enduring American art family dynasty. These three men are not the only noted artists of the family, however. Click here to learn more about the Wyeth family of American artists through the Brandywine River Museum of Art’s website.
N.C. Wyeth’s On the October Trail (A Navajo Family) from 1907 is now on view in our Early Twentieth-Century Gallery.
You can also see Andrew Wyeth’s Airborn (1996) and Jamie Wyeth’s Orca Bates (1990) on view in our 1940s to Now Gallery.
NOTE: Crystal Bridges’ Library holds editions of several books featuring N.C. Wyeth’s breathtaking illustrations, including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans, and more. We invite you to come up to the Library, open during all Museum public hours, and enjoy some of these wonderful works for yourself!