Rarely seen works by N.C. Wyeth in West Chester10/12/2015 10:09AM ● By J. Chambless
The Chester County Art Association in West Chester is hosting the Founders Exhibition through Oct. 18.
By John Chambless
A landmark exhibition of 17 works by N.C. Wyeth is a homecoming for the artist who, in 1931, was one of the founders of the Chester County Art Association in West Chester.
The Founders Exhibition, which runs through Oct. 18, marks the 84th anniversary of the Art Association, which was founded by Wyeth, Dr. Christian Brinton and William Palmer Lear as a showcase for the artists who were already flocking to the area. It was N.C. Wyeth who designed the logo for the Art Association, and whose shadow extends over the Brandywine School of art.
Despite being able to see so many of Wyeth's originals at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, it is still awe-inspiring to walk into the Allinson Gallery and be surrounded by 17 of his masterful canvases, displayed together here for the first time. Sixteen of them are on loan from the Hill School in Pottstown, where they have been displayed since they were purchased in 1923 and donated to the school by faculty member Michael Sweeney. The set of paintings illustrates Brander Matthews' compilation, “Poems of American Patriotism,” which was standard reading for students. They are known today as The Freedom Collection.
Each of them is an impressive 32 by 40 inches, and they reflect the vivid colors and brawny heroism of Wyeth's best work. They also show an unabashed patriotism that seems almost quaint in our cynical era.
In contrast to the rather stiff “American Eagle” and the nearly Art Nouveau sentimentality of “Our Mother,” the suite of paintings does convey the sweat and toil required to earn freedoms. There's the rock-solid composition of “John Burns at Gettysburg,” with the hero raising his rifle, but the telling details – the glance of an onrushing soldier in the background, and the two fallen soldiers in the foreground – speak of the tumult of battle.
“Sherman” has a melancholy blue-gray light and a somber air, much like “Grant,” both of which portray the Civil War generals as troubled men, weighed down by war. The cost of war is allegorically expressed in “The Unknown Soldier,” in which a World War 1 doughboy looks heavenward against a background of fallen knights in the clouds.
“The Old Continentals” has a vivid glow and blue sky that pop off the canvas, although the manly chest and unbuttoned shirt of the central figure perhaps recall too many romance novel covers to a modern audience. “Paul Revere's Ride” captures the headlong rush of the event, and “Barbara Frietchie,” showing an elderly woman holding a battered U.S. flag from her battle-scarred window, is almost as action packed.
In contrast to all the manly posing and billowing flags, “Nathan Hale” is a hushed, intriguing nighttime view of the Revolutionary War spy, standing in the shadows as a Redcoat guards an encampment in the distance.
Among the views that best summarize the reality of war, “Washington Reviewing His Troops” shows the weary, wind-whipped soldiers, glancing sideways at the general, who is regarding them in the foreground. “The Regular Army Man,” with its two gun-toting soldiers in blue shirts, has a warm light and an air of coiled menace as the two warily watch something out of our view.
Also making a rare appearance is N.C. Wyeth's “The Giant” (1923), which has hung in the Westtown School for 95 years. It has been loaned for this exhibition and it truly makes a huge impression. Seeing it in person gives you a fresh impression of the scale of the sky and the perfectly expressive poses of the children on the beach – five of them modeled on Wyeth's own children. The crisp shore light is much more dazzling than reproductions of the painting suggest, and the reflection of the children in a tidal pool in the foreground is a detail you might never have noticed before.
Certainly, there is much of N.C. Wyeth's palette and style in the four paintings by George Gillett Whitney, a charter member of the Art Association, that are also on loan from the Westtown School. His “Spring,” an expansive 1937 panorama of huge clouds and noble farmer, is a grand statement.
Providing background are two cases full of letters and programs from the early years of the Art Association, including handwritten letters from Wyeth and Whitney, and wonderfully detailed notes giving Wyeth's recommendations for properly displaying works at the North Hill mansion in West Chester, an early home of the Art Association.
As a way to mark an anniversary, The Founders Exhibition is certainly a triumph of logistics in getting these very valuable works together under one roof. The admission fee being charged this week is a small price to pay to see paintings you will otherwise never see in person. If you are any kind of admirer of Wyeth's works, you should not miss this opportunity.
In conjunction with the show, special events include: Guest lecture with Christine Podmaniczky, curator of the N.C. Wyeth Collections at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Oct. 14, 5:30 p.m., free with exhibit admission); Sketch Session, when artists can draw from the works on view (Oct. 13 and 15, 9 to 11 a.m., $20). General admission is $15 ($5 for ages 6 to 18, 5 and younger free). The Chester County Art Association is at 100 N. Bradford Ave., West Chester. Visit www.chestercountyarts.org.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email [email protected].