Another look at N.C. Wyeth, American art patriarch

Another look at N.C. Wyeth, American art patriarch


AMNA NAWAZ: “Star Wars” creator George
Lucas and “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin
have cited him as an influence on their work, helping them imagine what an adventure story
might look like. Now, N.C. Wyeth, who led a family of American art royalty,
gets a new look in an exhibition of his illustrations and paintings. Jeffrey Brown reports for our ongoing arts
and culture series, “Canvas.” JEFFREY BROWN, PBS NEWSHOUR CORRESPONDENT:
The beautiful Brandywine River Valley in Pennsylvania: inspiration and home to Newell
Convers better known as N.C. Wyeth. Today, it’s also home to the Brandywine River
Museum of Art, in Chadds Ford, which is giving Wyeth a
new look. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote the
beloved adventure tale, “Treasure Island.” But for
millions of American, beginning in the early 20th century, it was Wyeth who created the
lasting images of pirates and much more. CHRISTINE PODMANICZKY, CO-CURATOR, “N.C. WYETH: NEW PERSPECTIVES”: The personal
paintings, the illustrations, he did mural work, he did advertising work. So, his reach into the different
aspects of visual culture is so broad. JEFFREY BROWN: Christine Podmaniczky is co-curator
of the exhibition, “N.C. Wyeth: New
Perspectives.” The goal here: to present a more well-rounded
portrait of an artist who painted scenes of rural life here and in coastal Maine, where
he had a residence, but who remains best known for his book
illustrations, the smaller reproductions of his large-scale paintings for such classic
children’s stories as “Robin Hood”, “Last of the Mohicans”,
“King Arthur”. Wyeth’s genius, says Podmaniczky, was to find
just the right moment in the story to bring to life. As when young Jim Hawkins first leaves home
in treasure island. CHRISTINE PODMANICZKY: I said goodbye to mother
and the cove. That’s all Stevenson writes — JEFFREY BROWN: That’s it? CHRISTINE PODMANICZKY: That’s it. JEFFREY BROWN: One line? CHRISTINE PODMANICKZY: That’s it. All he writes about Jim Hawkins leaving home,
going off on this exploit where he’s to search for treasure. But when you look at the painting, you see
how much N.C. Wyeth has brought here in the form of emotion. First of all, the characters themselves, the
look on Jim Hawkins face. But his use of shadow, the sharp lines, the
sort of cloud over the mother, posture, all sorts of
things heighten the sense of what’s going on. JEFFREY BROWN: Wyeth’s first breakthrough,
in 1902, was a cover for the “Saturday Evening Post,”
imagery of an already past and mythic American west. He created magazine advertisements, including
for “Cream of Wheat”. It was a time before television and our own
screen-saturated lives, the golden age of illustration, and Wyeth
was at its forefront. The commissions allowed him to buy property
here in Pennsylvania and to support the other part of his life for which he became
best known: as patriarch of an American art family dynasty,
father of five children, three of them painters, most famously the youngest, Andrew. Andrew Wyeth would become one of the biggest
names in 20th century American art, also focusing on his
hometown of Chadds Ford and summer home in Maine, including the celebrated Christina’s
World from 1948. Andrew’s son, N.C.’s grandson, is Jamie
Wyeth. This is the grounds of your childhood, huh? JAMIE WYETH, PAINTER/GRANDSON, N.C. WYETH: Yes, my grandfather’s orchard and
whatnot, and then my aunt used this and studio. JEFFREY BROWN: Jamie now 73 and also a prominent
painter, first learned to draw in the grand studio
N.C. built here. Jamie never knew his grandfather, who died
in 1945, age 62, in a car accident at a railroad crossing. The studio is owned by the Brandywine Museum. This is pretty much the way it was when you
were a kid? JAMIE WYETH: Totally, it hasn’t been changed
at all. It’s as if he walked out of it yesterday. JEFFREY BROWN: He painted this giant mural
for a Wilmington bank. JAMIE WYETH: My father told me that he would
watch his father walk up, put a brush stroke on, and
walk back to see the visual effect. JEFFREY BROWN: So, he’d go up and back and
up and back. JAMIE WYETH: Back and forth, yes, putting
them in — I mean, it’s pretty loosely and thinly done when
you get up to it, but to do this expression and then get back knowing this thing would
be 50 feet from the viewers, and whatnot. JEFFREY BROWN: All around, the collection
of items he gathered for his book illustrations. JAMIE WYETH: Coming to this studio was magical
to me because here, it was full of costumes and
cutlasses and flintlocks, and a lot of his illustrations were still in the back room
here. So I’d go through
them for hours. JEFFREY BROWN: This was like the amusement
park in a way. JAMIE WYETH: Oh, my God, it was just magical. My father, of course, I would pump him and
ask him about N.C. Wyeth and he said, he wanted the paintings
to leap out of the page as you read them, to grab
you by the neck. And they sure do. JEFFREY BROWN: As the show makes clear, though,
N.C. also had larger ambitions: to be taken seriously as a fine artist, rather than just
a successful commercial illustrator. Much of the exhibition’s second floor displays
the more personal paintings Wyeth created largely for
himself, as well as two from his late-in-life, first solo exhibition in a New York gallery. Among those:
island funeral, which uses paint Wyeth made from dyes he received from the nearby DuPont
Company CHRISTINE PODMANICZKY: Ands that’s how he
gets these beautiful, deep, sort of jewel-like tones
here. There’s a lot of tension going on here between
the old-fashioned bird’s eye view, the new cuttingedge dyes, the death of an island patriarch. Well, N.C. Wyeth is in his late 50’s at this point, he
is already been publicized, if you will, as the patriarch
of his own family. So there are thoughts, I think, of mortality
here. JEFFREY BROWN: There are also signs of Wyeth,
a traditional artist, flicking at some of the more
modern painting techniques of his time. CHRISTINE PODMANICZKY: This is one of the
most fascinating paintings as far as technique goes
because you have him here trying to capture the light on this chain mail or armor, and
it’s just a magnificent piece of painting. JEFFREY BROWN: And grandson Jamie goes so
far to see in this exhibition an unusual kind of group
show all by one painter. JAMIE WYETH: He tried so many different techniques,
so many different approaches. Some are very
Cezanne-like, broken color, impressionistic, tried them all, which is wonderful, I guess,
you know? There’s
a wonderful little self- portrait of him looking. It’s just teeny and just very delicately done. JEFFREY BROWN: Painting, Jamie says, has been
the family passion. JAMIE WYETH: It was sort of like another world,
the comparing the three generations and so forth. And
I happen to adore their work. I mean, these two individuals, very different
individuals, very different approaches to painting — I mean, what a thing
to build on. JEFFREY BROWN: The elder Wyeth himself, though,
never achieved the recognition he craved. JAMIE WYETH: He looked at it and thought his
life had just been doing these children’s books. It was
hard for me to conceive that, though. I mean, he had to have looked at — I remember
my mother, she said when she first met him, she was very young
and said, oh, Mr. Wyeth, I love your illustrations, your
“Treasure Island”, and he said, you’ll grow out of that. JEFFREY BROWN: Really? JAMIE WYETH: Uh-huh. And he was wrong. JEFFREY BROWN: “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” is at the Brandywine
River Museum of Art through September 15th. For the “PBS NewsHour”, I’m Jeffrey
Brown in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

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