This summer has installed 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. We share here excerpts from the Brandywine’s excellent biography of the artist, found on their website.
N.C. Wyeth was born on October 22, 1882, in Needham, Massachusetts. He studied drafting at Mechanic Arts High School until 1899, and then transferred to Massachusetts Normal Art School where he studied illustration.
“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. … 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.”
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, this image was not related to a story or other specific narrative content in the magazine. Scribner’s decided to publish the image on its own merit. These early successes at illustration led to an esteemed career for which N.C. Wyeth was and continues to be best 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. … 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. … 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.”
NC Wyeth’s On the October Trail (A Navajo Family) is now on view in Crystal Bridges Early Twentieth-Century Gallery, and will remain through 2016.
You may also see Andrew Wyeth’s Airborn (1996) and Jamie Wyeth’s Orca Bates (1990) on view in our 1940s to Now Gallery.
The Crystal Bridges Library holds several books illustrated by Wyeth, including Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans, Robin Hood, and more. Come visit the library any time during Museum public hours and enjoy these classic works and Wyeth’s rich, wonderful illustrations for yourself!