A new perspective on a giant of American art
By J. Chambless
‘Dark Harbor Fishermen,’ 1943. Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine.
The depth and breadth of N.C. Wyeth’s career is addressed in a major exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.
“N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives,” which opens on June 22, is an attempt to examine the artist’s work and themes and put them in context for new generations of viewers who have not grown up with his landmark illustrations for classic literature. It’s a large task, but there is no better place for it than the Brandywine, which is in the heart of the region Wyeth loved and painted for so many years.
The exhibit spans the second and third floors of the museum, with interior walls reconfigured at angles to show how the artist’s work – illustrations, advertising, personal work and landscapes – were juxtaposed in Wyeth’s life. He worked at a feverish pace, turning out the 17 major paintings for “Treasure Island,” for instance, between April and July.
The exhibition begins with a video that sketches the arc of Wyeth’s life and career, including some brief home movies of him. There are 72 paintings in the show, beginning with his 1903 cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, as well as his Western illustrations, which gained him his first fame. Although he visited the West for only a few months, he was able to kindle a public nostalgia for the frontier that had largely passed by the time he saw it.
The early paintings show Wyeth’s knack for distilling the dramatic moments of a story – sometimes from the barest bit of text. The pictures put the viewer right in the middle of the action. By 1906, Wyeth was popular enough to produce a sly bit of product placement – a billboard for Cream of Wheat behind the horse and rider in “Bronco Buster,” which was used as an advertisement.
By the time he painted “The Scythers” in 1907, Wyeth had returned to Chadds Ford, realizing he needed to paint places he knew personally. Aside from splitting his time at his home in Maine, he very seldom traveled to the settings of the many stories he illustrated. The forests and hillsides of Chadds Ford were stand-ins for a whole world of far-flung adventures.
The 1911 Treasure Island illustrations cemented Wyeth’s reputation and paid enough for him to settle his growing family here. He pays tribute to his new workplace (“The Studio,” 1913-1915) and Chadds Ford (“The Fence Builders,” 1915), as well as “Pyle’s Barn” (1917-1921), a view of the structure that used to stand on what is now Route 1. The light and sky are so vividly painted they are almost three-dimensional.
Likewise, Wyeth’s “Buttonwood Farm” (1919) revels in the ancient sycamore that stands beside the Gilpin House on the Brandywine Battlefield, with a luminous sky and interlaced branches.
Among the rarely seen works in the show, “The Americans at Chateau-Thierry” is Wyeth’s interpretation of the tumult of a World War I battle. Nearby is another gem, Wyeth’s endpapers for Rip Van Winkle (1921), which suggests the drama of something from “The Lord of the Rings.”
In the third-floor gallery, the story picks up with small paintings of murals Wyeth completed for the First National Bank of Boston, along with well-known works such as “Dusty Bottle” (1924). His “The Harbor at Herring Gut” (1925) is a vibrant breaking point with his previous styles, reveling in a flat, folk-art representation of the scene.
The darker threads in the artist’s life story are reflected in “My Mother” (1929), a tribute to his late mother, as well as the nostalgic “My Grandfather’s House” (1929). “Fisherman’s Family,” painted in the dark days of the Depression, show the hollow despair of a Maine family with downcast expressions and empty crab pots. “Spring 1918” shows the melancholy of a mother and father with a letter from their son who is at the battlefront. Wyeth would return to the scene in 1944’s “The War Letter,” with the same emotion but a different war.
His “Corn Harvest” (1934) is a glorious celebration of a Chadds Ford autumn, and not seen before at the Brandywine. It glows with a dazzling blue stream and cool foreground shadow that draw the viewer closer. “April Rain” (1935) has a splendidly subdued mood and damp, gray palette that is a stark departure from Wyeth’s usual bright colors.
Working again in advertising, Wyeth threw himself into the war effort with commissioned pieces such as “Soldiers of the Soil” (1942), with heroic tractors that frankly seem a little silly from our perspective.
There’s a fascinating contrast between a pencil sketch with notations by Wyeth, along with the finished painting, for “Village Street, Port Clyde, Maine” (1944) that shows the artist’s meticulous note-taking.
There is a wonderful Maine light in “Bright and Fair,” a painting of Wyeth’s home in Port Clyde, Maine, with sun reflecting on the white wall. The inclusion of “Island Funeral” is a great addition. The bird’s-eye (or God’s-eye) view of a distant island, with boats docked at the edge and a stream of people walking toward a central building, links Wyeth’s narrative work with his modern tendencies, and the striking blue-green of the water lends a further magical air to the work.
Among the many rarities on view is a huge charcoal composition drawing, “Noon Hour,” showing a contemplative fisherman in a rowboat, for a painting that was likely never completed. In the company of the somber moments, Wyeth’s “Nightfall” (1945) takes on a special resonance. The grim, stoic gaze of the farmer, the girl’s longing glance toward home, the fading light – all reflect the artist’s own personal concerns.
The last painting is “Dark Harbor Fishermen” (1943), with a boat full of gleaming silver fish and flapping seagulls drawing the viewer to the boats set against inky black water and the enigmatic moment being depicted.
“New Perspectives,” which continues through Sept. 15, is clearly a landmark exhibition for the Brandywine, putting a new light on an artist whose work spans such a critical time in American art. Whether you are a Wyeth fan or a newcomer, the sheer ambition of the work displayed here will make a strong, lasting impression.
For more information, and a schedule of events surrounding “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives,” visit www.brandywine.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].