“Last of the Mohicans” Works by N.C. Wyeth/Courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art

Newell Convers Wyeth, known to history as N.C. Wyeth, was born in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1882. He was the father of Andrew Wyeth and grandfather of Jamie, who was born the summer after his grandfather died at the age of 62 in a violent crash between a train and the car he was riding in.

Wyeth became enamored with Maine when he sailed the coast around 1910. A few years later, he acquired a home in Port Clyde and expanded the family’s mostly Pennsylvania roots to include Maine.

Like Winslow Homer, Wyeth because immensely popular and well-known throughout the nation for his published illustrations. He is still best known for his pictures associated with popular books published by Scribner’s, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” or “The Boy’s King Arthur,” among many others.

This is how I first came to know of Wyeth: Even when I was too young to read the text, I regularly gazed at the cover illustration of “Kidnapped” at my grandmother’s cottage. To this day, I think it makes the case for Wyeth being one of the best colorists in the history of Western painting.

That could – and probably should – sound strange. Wyeth was one of the great American illustrators, along with Howard Pyle, Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish. He could draw and bring stories to life like few have. But does he belong in the ranks of the best-ever American painters?

I certainly think so, and that the Portland Museum of Art’s “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” furthers this case.

A few things stand out in the show: Wyeth’s role as an illustrator, his remarkable skill and creativity as a colorist, his penchant for experimenting with different styles and approaches to stand-alone paintings and his ability to create iconic images.

The far corner of “New Perspectives” features five such iconic paintings. It is an extraordinary gathering.

“Black Spruce Ledge” is a 1939 tempera depicting a lobsterman pulling a trap into his dory. Between the scalloped sky and pyramid-pointing trees of the island (think Leonardo’s compositions), it might be the greatest Maine painting ever constructed.

“Island Funeral”

But Wyeth also finds color greatness with his egg tempera paints and in lightly touched passages where we can see his brushwork. The 1939 “Island Funeral” is the epitome of a Wyeth painting – a coastal landscape done in glowing tempera colors. The view is from above down onto a small island where boats and people are gathering to mourn the death of a local. The doleful beauty is fitting and deeply moving.

“The Lobsterman (The Doryman)” is a 1944 tempera that masterfully combines the simplicity and the sublime presence of nature. The dory is a simple shape and we see it from low enough in the water that the edges of a dark island only peer out from behind the boat that the mariner operates through the churning surf with long-practiced skill. The clouds appear to be pushing forward along with the boat.

Wyeth’s “Dark Harbor Fishermen” is a PMA favorite. Seen from above, fishermen are seen moving bait herring between their dories, and the reflected light softly seems to be emanating from the silvery fish themselves. “Bright and Fair” is a work from the Farnsworth, an oil landscape of an island house. It is remarkable for its depth of nuance in features such as the impressively wispy clouds and the extraordinary handling of the light throughout the scene.

“New Perspectives” is a large show and yet it’s barely big enough to showcase the range of Wyeth’s painterly endeavors and supreme abilities. Wyeth made important illustrations but also landscape paintings, self-portraits and fantasy images. We’re now rather removed from the legacy of narrative painting that led the Western world for centuries, so in addition to generally demeaning storytelling in painting (as opposed to, say, personal expression), we have a hard time digesting any past artist’s narrative chops.

In the more experimental work Wyeth did for himself, such as “September Afternoon,” we see him internalizing the lessons of Impressionists and van Gogh – folks whose radical assaults came to topple the Academy’s hold on the art world. In his 1936 “The Drowning,” for example, Wyeth even reaches to the German Expressionists in his chaotically turbulent coastal landscape featuring an empty dory. The subjective swirl of radical colors such as pinks and indistinct forms impressively keep the viewer’s eye from settling on anything solid – practically the definition of Baroque art.

Notably, these two pictures that appear as experimental one-offs were painted in oil. In the context of what we know about Wyeth, however, they are strong enough to reveal that he could have been practically unlimited as a painter. And perhaps it is this sense of potential that ultimately weighed over-heavily on the man so famous for his illustrations. While it isn’t clear whether his death at age 62 was suicide, as has been theorized, he was frustrated by the seemingly limited label of “illustrator.”

“In the Crystal Depths”

The title “New Perspectives” obliquely hints at something deeply disturbing about the show. Wyeth has been portrayed recently as a whitewashing racist by critics such as The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott, who, on one hand, claims to have, as a boy, devoured the books Wyeth illustrated and then proves he didn’t by his representation of the illustration of “The Last of the Mohicans.” Kennicott clearly took his lead from the alternative perspective text by a Native American provided as accompanying wall copy in the exhibit that read frontiersman Hawkeye’s standing in a canoe paddled by his friends – the last two Mohicans – as emblematic of the white man’s lording over Native Americans. This represents a bluntly ill-considered dismissal of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel that presciently took on complicated questions surrounding racism and the future of Native Americans: Cooper clearly lamented the destruction of the Native American peoples. Cooper’s portraits of groups might have been insufficiently informed 200 years ago, but isn’t the best solution to become well-informed and fight facile assumptions?

I frankly don’t know enough about Wyeth personally to comment on what was in his heart, but it is a hugely important topic. And while it’s easy and fair to criticize our cultural past, we should take accusations seriously and get our facts in order when attacking the reputations of individuals. Because this is such an important topic, I think a few of the commentaries about Wyeth’s works by current Native Americans that accompany some of the paintings in the show as wall copy do damage to the paramount causes of equality and fairness.

In another example, the writer whose text accompanies “In The Crystal Depths” laments that the Native American in the canoe is holding a spear for fishing, that it is not the period-appropriate triple-headed spear (such as we recently saw in “Wiwenikan” at the Colby College Museum of Art) and that if he were fishing, he should have had a basket for fish. But a quick glance at the actual painting makes it very clear that he is holding a paddle rather than a spear. And it took me less than a minute to find online that it appears to be a period-accurate Native American paddle. This seems to be a stunning lapse of judgment by the staff and such a misfire can only hurt our cause.

To be clear, I welcome the PMA’s inclusion of Native American voices in the commentary: It’s a brilliant and worthy idea, particularly for “New Perspectives” because there are so many representations (made by a white guy) of Native Americans. These perspectives offer the viewer additional lenses to consider not only Wyeth, but provincialism, the role of historical fiction in creating overly-facile recognizable cultural types, and much more. Although this aspect of the backdrop is uncomfortable, “New Perspectives,” overall, reveals Wyeth to have been an unusually brilliant, talented, and multifaceted artist. He was no mere illustrator. He was no mere anything.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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