Sunday, November 29, 2009
Way of the Wyeths (I)
Like thousands of other kids of the 1940's and '50's, I grew up reading the wonderful black-cloth-and-color-plate editions known as Scribner Illustrated Classics--Treasure Island, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, The Black Arrow, and many other familiar titles. Most of the Scribner books were blessed with glorious color illustrations by New Englander N.C. Wyeth. I didn't pay much attention to his name back then--I was just responding to the obvious drama and power of the pictures--but as I got older and became a book collector and then fan of illustration work and visual design, I learned more about Wyeth and his amazing family.
Newell Convers Wyeth was a big man, full of even bigger enthusiasms, for painting and teaching, for Nature and Thoreau, for steady domesticity and a rollicking but directed family life. N.C. and his gentle wife Carolyn settled in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine River Valley not far from Wilmington, Delaware (where he had studied the art of illustration with late 19th century master Howard Pyle). The Wyeths had five children, and three of them--Henriette, Carolyn and, of course, Andrew--became famous painters themselves, partly as a result of the concentrated tutoring, arts home-schooling, and costumed play-acting they experienced almost daily as children. (Third daughter Ann, a classical music composer, married painter John W. McCoy, and older son Nathaniel became a design engineer with many patents including one for the first plastic bottle intended for water and the like.)
Carrying the story further, all the way into this century in fact, Henriette in 1930 married Western painter Peter Hurd--a student of N.C.'s and older good friend of Andrew--and their youngest son Michael gradually has become a well-known Southwest artist as well as director of the family's Hurd/Wyeth gallery. Similarly, Andy married Betsy James, and their son Jamie's slightly edgy portraits and gently comical paintings of animals and denizen tourists have made him a well-scrutinized success since his late teens. (In 1991, a Wyeth biographer noted that 12 of the 13 surviving grandchildren of N.C. either painted or worked in the arts more generally, but I am choosing to stop with the earlier generation.)
There was a time when Andrew's watercolors and egg tempera paintings--each one a study in painstakingly detailed, beautifully crafted realism, usually with some odd secret backstory, or suggestion of bleak rural menace and barely suppressed violence, but occasionally a sly, unexpected moment of comedy too--made him the most famous illustrative painter in America, positioned a step further along the fine arts spectrum than, say, Norman Rockwell. In the last decade or two, however, while his paintings have ascended into the million-dollar price range, his reputation among critics has declined (again), too much Andy Wyeth publicity irritating their fine minds, I guess. (Fans of figurative art like me wonder why abstracts and weird collages and three-dimensional constructs, all heavily dosed with post-modern irony these days, are routinely valued more highly than illustration skills. I've always subscribed to the notion that one should first learn to draw before abandoning the whole history of art.)
Of the other children, Henriette made a specialty of canny portraits and lush floral still lifes, while Carolyn is still something of a mystery, a fragile, skittish figure who slowly paints haunted, haunting scenes of... whatever she chooses. Ann's quiet husband John McCoy studied with N.C. for a year, then went his own way, focused mostly on the rugged Maine seacoast. And Peter Hurd, following his time with N.C., returned to the Ruidoso area of New Mexico, and eventually persuaded Henriette to make the move too--the only Wyeth to break free of her Eastern roots. The rest of the family continued their annual migration (in terms of place and subject matter both) back and forth between Cushing, Maine and Chadds Ford.
N.C. died relatively young (in 1945), he and a grandson, when a train collided with his car, but he had lived long enough by then to see all five of his artist children or best students beginning to acquire their own individual reputations. (Andy in particular was well on his way to the astonishing fame and financial security--all carefully managed by Betsy--that lasted for 60-some years until his death less than a year ago.) But N.C. had for several decades been torn between the illustration work that maintained the well-to-do life for all, and his poorly stifled impulse to prove himself in the fine arts. He actually painted scores of landscapes and rural or sea scenes over 40 years time. But the world mostly ignored them, and the era of book illustration was ending too. As N.C. slowly became known more as Andrew's father than as the great Golden Age illustrator, some of his comments seemed slightly envious of Andy's painterly skills and burgeoning reputation. (The great indispensable source for such family stories and lore is The Wyeths: The Intimate Correspondence of N.C. Wyeth 1901-1945, 850 pages brilliantly edited by Betsy.)
The years my wife and I had a bookstore overlapped with the latest color-improved reissue of those N.C.-enriched Scribner books, and seeing the powerful color plates reawakened my interest in illustration. We began travelling to book shows and collecting Wyeth editions, gradually expanding to samples of N.C.'s children's work as well.
My wife's first mother-in-law, another Betsy--the first husband died young, as did Sandra's own mother, so Betsy became her replacement "Mom"--lived out on the Mainline west of Philadelphia. When visiting, we made a point of also traveling to the Brandywine Valley, to the Wyeth family sites and museum. We brought back a beautiful print of N.C.'s 1944 painting titled Springhouse, which became our fireplace mantle centerpiece for many years (our island home has springfed water too).
Then a year or two later, our son Michael took an Academy-prep year at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. We visited him, of course, and then journeyed west to the Hurd-Wyeth ranch near San Patricio; we stayed at the ranch guesthouse for a night, marveled at the works on display in the gallery, and bought some minor items representing Henriette and Peter. But we also discovered that the nearby John Meigs Gallery was closing and selling off a whole library of books, plus Wyeth-related artworks... so we bought prints personally signed to "Johnny" (Meigs) by Jamie and by John McCoy and books signed by Peter, but the special find was a rare Forties print of a lovely, little-known Maine lobstering scene painted by N.C., in a gorgeous old hand-colored frame. (Re-selling the Meigs books we bought helped pay for those multiple-edition pieces!)
Over the next decade we dealt with the closing of our store, the death of parents, growing grandchildren... life. Collecting was less important. And among the Wyeths, Carolyn passed on in 1994, and Henriette in 1997; Peter Hurd and John McCoy had already died during the preceding decade. Only indomitable Andrew and genial Jamie and the other grand- children carried on.
In 2007 Sandra and I decided we needed to see New England and the fall foliage. Starting from Long Island, we drove up the seacoast as far as Boothbay, Maine. Then, looking for the local sights, we discovered that by accident, without planning, we had come to Wyeth country, sort of the Downeast portion, with the family's "Eight Bells" summer home, the Olson House (where Andrew painted Christina's World), the Wyeth-supported Farnsworth Museum, and other pertinent places all nearby. And so we visited and marveled once again, especially at the museum's show of "Andrew Wyeth at 90." Then, gulping, we convinced ourselves we could afford to buy two more signed prints--one, Andy's peaceful and lovely watercolor Around the Corner; the other, Jamie's strange and slightly eerie work, The Red House.
Since then we have refrained from further madness. Andrew kept painting and then finally died, at age 91, just this past January. The world took notice but didn't seem to mourn all that much. I hope the surviving Wyeths are well and carrying on not only the name, but the astonishing artistic legacy of N.C. and his students and children. It's a cliche but this time true: The world will not see their like again...