N. C. Wyeth, “Island Funeral,” 1939, egg tempera and oil on hardboard, Brandywine River Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

N.C. Wyeth suffered a ghastly death in October 1945, when a freight train slammed into his station wagon near his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He and a young grandson were killed instantly.

Wyeth was 62 and one of America’s celebrity painters, but he died without the satisfaction of living long enough to see his career taken seriously by the fine-art establishment. He was perhaps American’s best-known illustrator, whose paintings for Scribner’s “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson served as platforms to launch the imaginations of generations of young readers. But he died lacking what he wanted most: Recognition as a serious artist.

A new exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art puts all of Wyeth’s art in context, and presents his so-called easel paintings – the paintings he made because he wanted to and not because they were commissioned – alongside his illustrations. The exhibition includes the paintings that ended up in books and magazines, as well as broad array of landscapes, still lifes and other thematic images. The exhibition, “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives,” opening Friday also raises questions about Wyeth’s whiteness, his Euro-centric view of the world in first half of the 20th century and his depiction of people of color in his paintings.

N. C. Wyeth, “Self-portrait,” circa 1914, oil on canvas. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Wyeth.  Image courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

The result is an exhibition of majestic proportions that offers a stunning and complicated portrait of the patriarch of America’s first family of Art. Wyeth, born Newell Convers Wyeth in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1882, was the father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie, who was born the summer after his grandfather died.

With roots in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Massachusetts, three generations of Wyeths have painted in Maine. N.C. Wyeth was captivated by Maine when he sailed along the coast around 1910, and a decade later purchased a home in Port Clyde, setting the family’s stake firmly in the midcoast.

N. C. Wyeth, “Dark Harbor Fishermen,” 1943, tempera on hardboard, Portland Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

“New Perspectives” is the first major exhibition in 50 years that brings together both facets of his career, and is co-organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford. The Portland exhibition, on view through Jan. 12, includes about 45 paintings and drawings. The exhibition is co-curated by Christine B. Podmaniczky, an authority on Wyeth who serves as curator of  the N. C. Wyeth Collections & Historic Properties at the Brandywine, and Jessica May, deputy director and chief curator at the PMA.

There’s a lot of Maine in “New Perspectives.”

One of the knock-out paintings is “Dark Harbor Fishermen” from 1943, an egg tempera owned by the PMA since 1963 and a showpiece of the museum ever since. Wyeth’s perspective is from atop a fishing pier, looking down into a group of fishermen and their skiffs and dories, as they scoop herring into bushels of bait. Gulls flock on the water and in the air, ready for food. Wyeth captures the energy of the activity, among both the fishermen and the gulls, while presenting the water as a dark, flat and static surface. There’s no visible emotion in the men – they all have their heads down, looking away from the viewer and intent in their work – but Wyeth captures their physical character and their movements.

Because of the familiarity of Portland audiences with “Dark Harbor Fishermen,” the discussion about whether Wyeth was a fine-art painter may feel moot, May said. “We have a privileged view of N.C. Wyeth because so many of his greatest paintings were made in direct inspiration of his home on the coast,” she said.

Another knock-out Maine painting is “Island Funeral,” also an egg tempera, from 1939. Like “Dark Harbor Fishermen,” it’s a top-down view – this time, a bird’s-eye view – of a procession of sailboats and motorboats around a small island in tribute to a neighbor who had died. The colors of the water are brilliant aqua blue, achieved with newly developed pigments that Wyeth had been experimenting with, and the sky is expansive, cloud-filled and dark.

The painting offers commentary about coastal communities and American life and perspective on what was then perceived as man’s insignificance relative to nature. The island’s natural force dominates this painting above all. “Island Funeral” also says something about changing times, in content and execution, with power boats joining a procession of what traditionally had been sailboats and Wyeth’s use of modern paints to achieve his vision. May called “Island Funeral” an “extraordinary visual achievement and astounding modern accomplishment.”

The painting had been in private hands for many years, and was given to the Brandywine in 2017. May hangs it side by side with “Dark Harbor Fishermen” so visitors can appreciate both together as examples of Wyeth’s prowess as a serious artist and to show Maine’s influence on his vision.

“Black Spruce Ledge” with its electric-blue sky and rippling white clouds reflecting on the water, and “The Lobsterman,” depicting a solitary figure standing and leaning forward as he powers his dory through cresting waves on the strength of his oars, also speak to Maine’s beauty and the strength and character of its people.

The exhibition includes several of his commissioned illustrations for Scribner’s and other publishers. There are book illustrations from “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Boy’s King Arthur” and “The Mysterious Island,” and heroic paintings from World War I and the Civil War, and the mysterious autobiographical “In A Dream I Meet General Washington,” showing the painter greeting the general on his mount during the Battle of Brandywine, which occurred near Wyeth’s Pennsylvania home. N.C. Wyeth places his son Andrew in the painting, foreshadowing a dream motif that grandson Jamie has continued and perfected.

There’s a portrait of his mother, a trio of self-portraits and architectural paintings of his grandfather’s house and his home in Maine.

Wyeth painted hundreds of magazine covers and advertisements for commercial products. His timing was perfect. Advances in paints and printing processes meant his illustrations benefited from high-quality reproductions, and the various movements that surfaced in American art fueled his creative desire. His commercial success made him a rich man, enabling him to purchase his home in Maine and avail himself of Maine’s inspirational forces.

There are stylist differences between his commercial work and the paintings he did to satisfy his artistic desires. He bounced back and forth between both, making grand statements with his epic illustrations that he executed in an assured narrative style, while also exploring representational painting, Impressionism and occasionally pointillism and cubism in his other work. The exhibition has examples of all that.

“New Perspectives” makes the case that Wyeth was, as May says, “a great experimenter of styles in the first half of the 20th century. He was a master of so many modes of painting, it’s just unbelievable.”

And yet, he was unhappy with his career. He complained about being “backed into” illustration. May wonders if his disillusionment was based on reality or demons in his head. He suffered from insecurity, and there were questions about the circumstances of his death. Did his vehicle stall on the tracks? Did he suffer a heart attack? Could it have been suicide? The division in his work was real, May said, but perhaps not as severe as he made it out to be.

“One of the things I have learned from this project – and this is so human – on some level he set up for himself this dramatic divide. It’s not that it wasn’t a strong divide and he wasn’t shut out of artistic circles, but it’s possible he made that divide bigger in his own head than other people might have seen it at the time,” May said. “I don’t want it to sound like he made it up. He was perceiving a very real thing. But he had a lot of opportunities, and he was one of the most famous artists in America when he died.”

His death was national news. Wyeth was seen as a monumental painter, whose interests covered a sweep of American history and ideology, from Colonial times to Westward expansion to modernism. He emulated Frederick Remington, studied with Howard Pyle and influenced generations of illustrators.

With the perspective of time, it’s apparent how Wyeth’s view of the world and how he perceived himself in it were informed by his personal background and homogeny. He lived in a very white world, and the only people of color in this exhibition are those from the pages of “The Last of the Mohicans.” Many of his heroes are conquerors.

N. C. Wyeth, “The Last of the Mohicans,” 1919, oil on canvas, Brandywine River Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art

Reviewing this exhibition at the Brandywine, critic Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post, “But whiteness wasn’t just the absence of color. White people — meaning, people of Northern European extraction — were felt to embody a set of virtues and character traits, which are lovingly detailed in Wyeth’s imaginative landscapes.”

He notes that in a Wyeth illustration for James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” there are three men in a canoe. Two are Native Americans, seated with paddles. The other is a white man, standing over them with a gun.

Co-curator Podmaniczky suggests in a catalog essay that Wyeth was “codifying” the views of millions of American in his imagery, and his paintings reflected his times. Said May, “I think it’s OK to acknowledge the whiteness of the world that he lived in and painted.”

In its display, the PMA will include wall text from scholars, including several with expertise in indigenous issues, who will offer their views of and responses to the work. Their commentary will be displayed alongside that of the curators, May said. “With those early paintings of native people, we had to think deeply what they meant and what it means to show them in that context in these times.”

She expects “New Perspectives” will deliver exactly what its title suggests.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: