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by Andrew Wyeth
My father was a very robust, powerfully built man. Muscular. But strangely enough, his hands were very delicate. They weren’t big. A lot of people like to think, since he was a great big man, that he ate enormous amounts of food. But he was a very delicate eater. He gave the impression of great power, physical power which was very obvious. One of the stories around Chadds Ford was about a milk train he would meet and how he would help the farmers lift their cans, these enormous ten-gallon cans—one in each hand—up onto the platform beside the tracks. That gives an idea of his physical strength.
But he had other sides to him also. He was a man who admired many arts—literary, dramatic, musical. From being hardly a reader at all in his youth, he had become a constant reader. He had a remarkable talent for writing. My mother’s mother got him reading Thoreau. He also read Tolstoy. And he loved Robert Frost. He thought Keats was terrific. He loved Emily Dickinson. He was interested in drama. He went to see, and talked about it many, many times, Mourning Becomes Electra. He loved music. It was emotional. That’s where we kids certainly learned about. it. On Sundays after dinner we’d lie on the floor and listen to it. He loved Rembrandt. He admired George de Forest Brush and mentioned him often to me. He was a complex man in many ways.
I grew up and became mature under him. He had a marvelous way of never talking down to a young person. And I spent a lot of time with my father—much more than the rest of the children did. When I was a child I’d go out into the back room of the studio where he kept his drawings and paintings and many reproductions. Often I’d drag them out, wipe the dust off, and ask him about them. He told me so many things about these pictures that I got a pretty thorough knowledge of what he had done. I also spent hours in his studio going through his books of medieval armor, his historical books, and trying on costumes that he stored in his big chests. The costumes fascinated me. I was able to spend the time because I wasn’t going to public school, I was being tutored at home. While all the rest were being shipped off to be educated, I was being educated by my father in a very direct way; I feel very lucky.
As an illustrator, my father’s life revolved around children; yet he was a very severe father and did not pamper us in any way. He loved our imagination and it excited him, so our Christmases and Easters and Valentine’s Days—all those occasions—meant a great deal. And although he was a born illustrator for children, his works elevated the level of illustration. I think this is the thing that bothered the social or literary people about my father’s illustrations. I remember someone said to me—probably Philip Hofer—”You know, your father’s illustrations are really paintings. They jump out of the pages and in a certain way ruin the looks of the book. They don’t fit. Now when you see the originals and discover the size of them—and then you think of Rackham, whose images are all tiny (they’re illustrations!)—you realize that your father painted on the barn-door scale.” Pa lifted illustration into something it had never been before. He set himself apart. He transformed the nature of illustration.
Pa believed his artistic talents and literary interests were the contribution of his mother’s Swiss-French heritage. He was doing watercolors by the age of twelve, working with a local woman, Cora Livingston, who lived down the street in Needham. When he was about to turn twenty, he traveled to Wilmington with hopes of being accepted as a student by Howard Pyle.
Illustration was already in my father’s soul; he had his thoughts already in mind. All he really needed was the technical training. It’s astounding how quickly he learned to paint under Pyle. I mean, it was a year and a half, and he just tore through the training and was off. Soon after beginning work with Pyle, my father received commissions for magazine illustrations. Within a few years he was a full-time illustrator. Some of his earliest commercial illustrations were of the West. Pa knew the Navajos; he lived with them.
Over the next fifteen years he received several important book commissions. Yet look at those books: he used a new style for almost every one. He was always groping for something new. He was experimenting in painting. But he began each book project in the same way—he read the story.
Pa’s first and foremost interest was: Is it a well-written story? Is it a vital story? What he wanted to do was to bring air into those books that had been sitting in libraries for decades. People often refer to the books Pa illustrated as “children’s classics,” but I don’t think you can call The Last of the Mohicans a child’s book. And certainly The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain is not a child’s book.
In many of his paintings, the faces have a relaxed, almost deathlike quality that is extraordinary. I once asked about this. Pa said, “Andy, I’ll tell you.” And he drove his point right home to me: “When my mother died, I took the train right to Needham. I got there in the late afternoon and they had her laid in her bed upstairs. I went up and sat there with her, with that amazing face that looked like the mother of Europe. As the sun went down, studying that face lying there on that white pillow and that waxy skin”—he was almost whispering—”it made such a deep impression on me. Andy, if you ever have a chance to be with someone you have loved, don’t hesitate to do it, because that’s the most profound quality, a head in death. It changed everything for me.”
Twenty years later my father was killed. I arrived from Maine the next afternoon. I didn’t stop to say anything. I took the car up to the Birmingham Meeting and I sat there in that meeting house where he and Newell, my brother Nat’s son, lay. I will never forget that scene and the dry leaves blowing in late October. I remembered what my father said. He was so right. Their faces had become masks of eternity. I couldn’t have taken the funeral the next day if I hadn’t done that. For some reason that afternoon with them just raised my spirit so that I was sort of hovering above. It sounds a little melodramatic now, but my entire point of view was looking down on the whole thing.
The commercial illustrations Pa did provided a relatively steady income. All those done for Treasure Island and the other early books were sold outright to publishers and they kept them. Scribner’s sold them or gave them away. For instance, the Barrymores bought three of the Treasure Island works. And Mr. Randall, who was in charge of the rare book department of Scribner’s at one time, apparently sold pictures. Russell Colt bought the Kidnapped and Last of the Mohicans pictures. Imagine if Pa had done the Treasure Island pictures on royalties; instead, he got $5,000 for doing them. At that time, that was a lot of money, of course. He did a few books for royalties much later. The Mysterious Stranger was done on a royalty basis and didn’t sell at all.
My father really worked in a variety of media. He did watercolor. Some very early watercolors done when he was twelve years old are remarkable and show a lovely feeling for wash. He also did watercolors in his letters. Once in a while when we were kids he would come out and he would do a watercolor of a pirate head or something, always beautifully done. Pa was always excited by my interest in watercolor. But a lot of my early ones were trite drawings filled in with color; I was illustrating Robin Hood or The Three Musketeers, things like that. Then one fall day while I was out in the orchard doing an apple tree he asked, “Andy, why don’t you really free yourself?” He sat down by me and did this watercolor, very free, of an apple tree. He didn’t pursue watercolor himself because he felt that it wasn’t his medium. He was crazy, of course. He was a master technician.
Pa rarely worked in pen and ink. I always liked his pen drawings for Rip Van Winkle and The Mysterious Island—they had great quality. But he dismissed them, saying, “No, Andy, they’re pencil drawings rendered in ink. You have a feeling for pen and ink. I don’t.” That’s why he got me to do all of those pen and ink drawings in Men of Concord and the Hornblower series for him. The publisher never knew.
His use of charcoal is fascinating. It comes through the oil. When he did his early illustrations, he quickly drew them right on the canvas in charcoal, marvelous drawings with rich blacks. Then he would start right in with his oil, with glazes, and you could see his thumb marks and other things building these up.
All the illustrations were oil. He never did an illustration in egg tempera, though people think he did. I know, I was with him. In the thirties he was doing oil, but very, very thin oil. As the forties approached, I think of my father having a red sable brush and a little bit of egg tempera, having to mix it up and build up a cross-hatching for his landscapes. It was not Pa’s quality. It was not like the man. In one of our last talks, Stanley Arthurs said, “Your father should never have left the oil medium. He was so much at home with oil. All we students in the Pyle class would just marvel at the way he could work with charcoal and with transparent oil mixed with turpentine glazes and how these illustrations would come out of these enormous canvases. For him to take up a medium like tempera was a great tragedy.”
Pa was my only teacher. He taught me watercolors and oils. I remember one day when I was working in oil, doing a head of a man in strong light, and I started to get a lot of half-lights in the shadow side, reflected light. And he said, “You know, Andy, you’ve started out well, but you’ve lost your simplicity.” He took his finger and he put it in some raw sienna and using his thumb just simplified that whole shadow. He made it sing. That’s the painterliness that you find in pictures for Treasure Island and Kidnapped and in “Mowing” (page 19). Another time I was drawing an illustration. I guess I was about 18, and the image was of this man leaping out of a tree onto a man below. It was to be the perspective of looking down on the figure who was looking up and being leapt on. My father said, “You’ll have to get a model for this, but you want to get this feeling, ” and he quickly made a drawing of the figure looking up with his hands out, startled by this figure falling. It was a marvelous little drawing. Then I got a model and had him stand below me in that position as I got up in a tree. My father’s drawing was absolutely accurate! But far better than that because it had an expression and expressiveness.
The 1920s and 1930s were a very social period. My father enjoyed it. We kids never knew who was coming, I mean, they were always driving in with these enormous cars. I remember Scott Fitzgerald in a touring car with all these big straw hats, and oh, we kids had a great time with that. The Great Gatsby, right here! But of course, the Fitzgeralds lived nearby for a time. Joseph Hergesheimer was another big drawing card here and a very good friend of my father’s. He’d bring down his manuscripts and stay up all night reading them to Pa. Other visitors were Hugh Walpole, Lillian Gish, John Gilbert, who played in The Big Parade—oh, the list is long. Richard Barthelmess, Paul Horgan, Eric Knight, who wrote This Above All and Lassie, Come Home. Of course, both Paul and Eric were friends of Pete and Henriette. I would almost call them students of Pa’s literary side. Oh, yes, and Max Perkins, the editor at Scribner’s, was always asking Pa to write.
He was still a keen observer of life. Just minutes before he died here in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania he was overheard talking to Nat’s son about bundling shocks of corn: “This is something you must remember because this is something that is passing.” It’s an incident that is very compelling. A year or so later, Betsy picked up the woman whom he had been watching with the corn that day and drove her to Kennett Square. She told Betsy all about how Pa stopped and brought the little boy over and showed him what she and her husband were doing and talked all about the corn. Finally he said good-bye and returned to the car. She went back to work. About three minutes went by. They heard the train and this terrible crash. It’s so ironic he was killed so close to home. He had talked to me a year before as we walked down that railroad track and he showed me the spring where the Howard Pyle students would stop along the railroad and get water. It was still running. And a year later he was killed near that spot. It was October 19, the same date that he had first arrived here to study with Howard Pyle.
— Abridged from An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.)
A Note on Unitarian Connections
The Wyeth family lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1645.
On October 3, 1887 Newell Convers Wyeth was baptized a Unitarian.
Newell’s family was active in the First Parish Church in the town of Needham, Massachusetts, where he went to High School. Newell declared: “It don’t fit you for any practical college, such as Tech or Cornell. It only comes somewhere near fitting you for old, stale, rotten Harvard.”
In 1906 Newell married Carolyn Brenneman Bockius in the First Unitarian Church of Wimington, Delaware, and it was the religious home of all five of their children.
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Allen, Douglas and Douglas Allen, Jr. N. C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals. New York: Crown Publishers, 1972.
Michaelis, David. N. C. Wyeth: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Wyeth, N.C., Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth. Wondrous Strange: The Wyeth Tradition. Boston: Bulfinch, 1998.