August 4, 2013

Art Review: Paintings from Brandywine prove N.C. Wyeth's artistry


ROCKLAND — My introduction to classical music was a Saturday-morning thing. Like so many American kids, I first heard -- and loved -- Wagner and Mozart as brought to us by Bugs Bunny.

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N.C. Wyeth paintings at the Farnsworth Art Museum include “One last tremendous cut which would certainly have split him to the chin.”

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N.C. Wyeth paintings at the Farnsworth Art Museum include “The Hunter.”

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WHERE: Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum St., Rockland

WHEN: Through Dec. 29

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; until 8 p.m. Wednesdays

MUSEUM ADMISSION: $12; $10 for students and seniors; free for ages 16 and under

INFO: 596-6457;

I still listen to classical music.

My introduction to fine art came through wandering the Colby College Museum of Art and by perusing the beautifully illustrated books at my grandmother's house. The images of Gustave Dore and N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Roberts and Cervantes lit a fire inside me.

N.C. Wyeth is still one of my favorite artists.

The Farnsworth Museum of Art's "Every Picture Tells a Story" exhibition is a strong and -- because it comprises mostly works from the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. -- pleasantly fresh exhibition of Wyeth's paintings for illustrations.

This is a painting exhibition, and I see Wyeth as a painter. It's easier to fully understand his work as paintings. He became a professional artist, after all, at a time when the standards had been set by the academic paintings that still rule the Louvre.

At the top of the academic hierarchy of genres was history painting. After that came religious painting, portraiture, landscape, genre paintings and so on. Without getting caught up in the machinations of modernism and details about the other genres, history painting, in short, was illustration.

It is a mistake to disparage history painting -- as so many 20th-century artists have -- and pretend it was unsophisticated "illustration." In reality, the educated public understood the rhetoric and philology behind it, while we hardly remember what "philology" even means. (It combined linguistics, history and literary criticism, and was a subject Joshua Chamberlain -- the hero of Gettysburg -- taught at Bowdoin College.)

This is why we routinely underestimate N.C. Wyeth's greatness.

Featuring dozens of paintings from the Brandywine, "Every Picture" is a big show. The works are strikingly powerful and unexpectedly dense. They are accompanied by interesting label copy that explains details about their related publications, authors, publishers, professional and technical practices, and so on.

One of the most notable works in the Farnsworth show is the painting for the cover of "David Balfour," the sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped." It is a work of historical fiction (though loaded with real historical figures) set in the aftermath of the 18th-century Jacobite uprising in Scotland.

Wyeth depicts the main character as the bound captive of a pair of fearsome, dagger-armed men. We look up at the trio on a seaside dune in harsh, raking afternoon light under soaring cumulus clouds, all rendered in masterful and strikingly unexpected high-contrast color.

The right upper patch of sky is green, and the clouds are saturated with peach, purple and blue. The ruddy face of the center captor ranges from invisibly deep darks to dazzling speckles of reflected white highlight. Wyeth was a great colorist.

The scene is so exciting that we are distracted from noticing its qualities as a painting.

But these are powerful paintings executed with a bold brush. And they are big. We are reminded of this with a pair of extraordinary full-scale composition charcoal drawings.

One is a landscape-based corn harvest; the other shows men rowing a rescue dory through a violently raucous sea towards a stricken schooner. While my inclination is to focus on the ocean action, what matters most is what the drawings reveal: Wyeth could draw, and he could compose a great picture. And scale mattered to him.

We see this dedication to scale in subtle ways. We look up at the scenes like we do the giant Salon machines in the Louvre. I see Michelangelo's heroic "David" in Wyeth's extraordinarily iconic "The Hunter," which shows a chiseled and breechcloth-garbed Native American brave with bow in hand and goose quarry over his shoulder as he similarly looks up at a migrating flock in V-formation.

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N.C. Wyeth paintings at the Farnsworth Art Museum include “David Balfour.”


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