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An Artistic Legacy: N.C., Andrew and James Wyeth
June 10 - August 17, 2000
Private collectors and museums from across the United States are lending pieces to the Peninsula Fine Arts Center for what promises to be one of their most successful exhibitions. "An Artistic Legacy: N.C., Andrew and James Wyeth" features art from America's premier family of artists through September 7, 2000. The show is one of a very few to compare the techniques and subject matters of grandfather, father and son.
"This is a unique opportunity for the public to explore the Wyeth legacy, since over half of the featured works are from private collectors - fourteen from the Wyeth family," explained Lisë C. Swensson, Executive Director. Swensson and Curator Diana Blanchard Gross organized the exhibition of Wyeth illustrations and paintings, presented by Cox Communications and Newport News Shipbuilding.
Each artist is renown for his skill in a particular field: N.C. for classic storybook illustrations, James for portraits of American icons, and Andrew for landscape and still life paintings, in particular Christina's World. "An Artistic Legacy" will also feature some of the original books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and a children's interactive gallery, Cabbages and Kings, Birds and Things, building on the book, Cabbages and Kings, illustrated by James Wyeth.
For three generations, the Wyeth family has played a pivotal role in the creation of American art. This legacy of grandfather, father and son has captured the admiration of a vast audience with their powerful and memorable works of art, defining the image of "American Spirit."
Newell Convers Wyeth, born in 1882, known as the "great illustrator," studied art and drafting in Boston at the Mechanic Arts School, the Massachusetts Normal Arts School, and the Eric Pape School of Art. In 1902, he traveled to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to study with Howard Pyle (1853-1911), known as one of America's finest illustrators and art instructors. N.C. found himself struggling to express his own distinct individuality while using the techniques of others, between following and resisting Pyle's teachings. However, N.C.'s art progressed rapidly under Pyle's tutelage and, in 1903, received his first commission to illustrate the cover of Saturday Evening Post, one of the most widely circulated magazines in the country. From this moment on, the artist enjoyed reknown as an illustrator. (left: N.C. Wyeth, Long Line of Prisoners, 1927, oil on canvas, Courtesy of The Kelly Collection of American Illustration)
His most important commission came in 1911, from Charles Scribner's Sons for the illustration of Robert Lewis Stevenson's Treasure Island. He continued to illustrate numerous novels published by Scribners throughout his forty-three year career. Although N.C. traveled extenstively around the United States for inspiration, it was the subjects of those first paintings at Pyle's school, the East Coast landscapes of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, that became the geographical language of the Wyeth artistic legacy. Whether illustrating indians in the west or Robin Hood in England, N.C. always attempted to draw upon the elements of his own life and experiences to create convincing scenes, following Pyle's advice, "It is necessary either to have lived with these things you are going to picture or else, by the imagination, see them as though you had lived with them."
In spite of his success, N.C. continued to be tortured over his work being classified as "illustrations" rather than "fine art." The artist wanted to master the best of current trends to raise what he considered to be the lower level of his work. This anxiety over art versus illustration caused him to attempt easel paintings over and over again during his life, which were usually not as powerful as the illustrations he looked down upon. Ironically, it is N.C.'s illustrations, not his paintings, which are considered great art today.
N.C. was a dedicated father to his five talented children, devoting much of his adult life to instilling in them a sense of vision combined with a tuned imagination. His family became the dominating influence in his life, including in his paintings and illustrations, where they appear as models. Throughout his life, he continued to attempt to pass on his strong sense of time and the preciousness of a moment. The entire Wyeth family is known for an ability to observe and draw upon their life experiences to create works that inspire us to see our lives a little more clearly. On the day of his fatal accident in 1945, N.C. passed by a farmer working in a cornfield and was overheard saying to one of his grandchildren, "Look at this . . . This is something you must remember because this is something that is passing. You won't see this again. Remember this."
Recognized for his quiet, contemplative spirit and detailed style, Andrew Wyeth has become one of this country's most famous artists. His work is appreciated for its technique, unique perspectives, and psychological insights. He heightens the drama of the ordinary landscape through his detailed observation and fastidious technique. His 1948 painting, Christina's World, owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is one of the best known paintings ever created by an American artist. (left: Andrew Wyeth, Snowflakes, c.1966, watercolor, Courtesy of Arkansas Art Center)
Born the youngest son of N.C. and Carolyn Wyeth in 1917, Andrew's artistic talent was recognized at an early age. N.C. conducted his son's only art lessons, emphasizing a love of the rural landscape, a sense of romance and a strong feeling of heritage. Due to an unhealthy childhood, Andrew was tutored at home and was able to devote a great deal of time to his art. Many feel his power to capture the small details of a scene came from his father's effort to inspire his children to really observe and assimilate their surroundings. However, as his technique began to develop, the budding artist moved away from the "picture-making" of the Pyle school, where his father had learned his trade, and became captivated with capturing the feeling of the moment, rather than the drama of a story.
Although N.C. thought that Andrew's early watercolors would not sell, the young artist was well respected for his virtuosity and had a reputation as a successful watercolorist by the time he was twenty. Andrew's work is often bleak, direct and economical, utilizing a limited palette composed mainly of earth tones. Some art historians credit this style to the artist's "coming of age" during the difficult times of the Depression and World War II.
Andrew's life and art were also greatly impacted by the sudden death of his father in 1945. After this event, it became important for the artist to "prove that what he [N.C.] had started in me was not in vain - to do something serious and not play around with it, doing caricatures of nature." Andrew was quite successful in accomplishing this goal and, at the age of eighty-two, he continues to produce paintings that are sought after by museums and private collectors throughout the world.
Born in 1947, James Wyeth has said that he always wanted to paint, inheriting a love for the pencil, pen and paint brush from his father and grandfather. After six years of public school, this third generation artist was privately tutored at home, where his Aunt Carolyn could teach him art in her studio under the watchful eye of his father. James has experimented with a number of techniques throughout his career, including most recently mixed media with the philosophy that "no medium should be limited." Throughout his career, he has been especially drawn to the oil paint which his grandfather had used, saying, "You have to love a medium to work in it. I love the feel and smell of oil." He admires and wishes to emulate his grandfather's "sense of total personal involvement with and intuitive grasp of his subjects." Like his father, James also works in watercolor, utilizing Andrew as an important source of advice. However, where Andrew usually restricts himself to the winter, James paints all four seasons. (left: James Wyeth, Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1976, oil on panel, Courtesy of The Cheekwood Museum of Art)
Although James is known mostly as a portraitist, his goal has not been to merely create a likeness. Rather, the artist looks for dimensions of personality, establishing why the sitter has been selected. James pays special attention to both his human and animal subjects' eyes, which he believes reflect character. Like his father, he has painted almost exclusively in Pennsylvania and Maine, portraying subjects close to his life and establishing a uniquely personal style that incorporates a sense of isolation, endurance and connection with nature.
Newport News resident, Lisë C. Swensson is currently the Executive Director of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center and a lifelong fan of Wyeth art. She earned her B.A. in Art History from the University of Delaware and her M.A.T. in Art Education from the University of South Carolina.
"My personal Wyeth art history began in the fall of 1969, when I enrolled in my first college art appreciation course. Our professor showed a film about an important American artist named Andrew Wyeth. My classmates and I learned that this artist had inherited his talent and love of nature, history and the arts from his father, who had been an artist making his living as a commercial illustrator. During the film, we also learned that Andrew was born and raised in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, this is where my parents had moved while I was away at college. I vividly remember learning that Andrew Wyeth's art was directly affected by the death of his father, who had been tragically killed when a train hit the car he was driving. This accident happened on the tracks that ran by farmland owned by the Keurner's. This family of German immigrants' farm, animals and individual family members had become a favorite subject for the second generation Wyeth. One of the first things I did when I flew home for Thanksgiving vacation was find the railroad crossing and Keurner's farm, less than a mile from my parent's home. This landmark has been a favorite destination of mine for the past 30 years.
Two years after this introduction to Andrew Wyeth, a cousin I was visiting in New York City suggested I go to the Museum of Modern Art. I still remember experiences I had with three paintings during this first visit to MOMA. Picasso's almost 26 foot long Guernica screamed out in bold cubistic shapes that dripped paint with a vibrant intensity I had never before encountered in a work of art. The second painting that continues to affect me was Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory, featuring melting watches within a barren landscape painted in exquisite surreal detail-a scene that both attracted and repulsed me.
Then, somewhere close by, I distinctly remember coming upon Christina's World, on a small wall all by itself. It was not boldly yelling for attention, but in its own thought-provoking way was just as powerful as the other two masterpieces. This was my first interaction with an authentic painting by Andrew Wyeth. I found myself looking around for a bench to sit on, so I could leisurely explore and contemplate the piece. There was no place to sit and other visitors were anxious to view the work, so I moved on. However, I circled back for another glimpse of the woman's frail body in the foreground stretching out and up toward an old building that might have been her home, or was it an apparition from the past? This enigmatic image was hauntingly captivating to me then, and continues to be many years later.
That summer I lived with my parents in Chadds Ford and volunteered at the newly opened Brandywine River Museum, the home for three generations of Wyeth family art including N.C., Andrew and Jamie (who now prefers James). My assignment was to prevent visitors from touching the paintings. I took the "no touching" duty seriously and soon learned I could keep people from getting too close by casually striking up a conversation about the work or about "my artist," N.C. Wyeth. The N.C. Wyeth floor was full of paintings featuring characters from many of the children's classics N.C. had illustrated, almost ready to walk out of their canvases into the gallery to interact with visitors. After volunteering most days, I spent time on the floors for Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, looking at their work and wondering in amazement how this family of artists could possibly have achieved such an important body of work.
While running a South Carolina community arts center in 1979, a board member called to tell me that Frank Fowler, "the Wyeth dealer," had agreed to put together a show of Jamie Wyeth's work. Also, Jamie would be in town for the exhibition, as his wife owned a racehorse that would be competing in Camden's Colonial Cup races. The collection was small, but a great hit with visitors. Most of the pieces were watercolors using nature as a reference - fresh, strong images, some with traces of his father's influence. Jamie didn't make it to our opening, but the day of the races, when I was the only staff member in the building, he came by unannounced to see how the exhibition looked. He was the most famous artist I'd ever met - and the most handsome!
In 1984, while serving as the South Carolina State Museum's curator of art, I received a call from Arthur Magill the day before I left for New York, saying that I must cut my trip short to attend the tenth anniversary of the Greenville County Museum of Art. Arthur served on the Boards of both the Greenville and South Carolina museums. He and his wife Holly had given the museum an important collection of work by Andrew Wyeth, who was to be the guest of honor for the celebration. At the event, I met Andrew and Jamie's brother Nicholas, an art dealer and a lender to our PFAC show. Last spring, as we discussed the need for an exhibition featuring an artist with name recognition, I suggested the name Wyeth. With unanimous agreement, we went to work. The exhibition began with permission from Jamie to borrow his original mixed media paintings that illustrated Elizabeth Seabrooke's 1997 children's book Cabbages and Kings. Then we started searching for paintings by N.C. Wyeth, Jamie's grandfather, who was one of our country's most successful illustrators. The comparisons of grandfather and grandson seemed a natural. Very soon into the project, however, it became obvious we needed to create a three generation Wyeth exhibition. Such a show had never been exhibited in Virginia and people wanted to see paintings by Andrew Wyeth.
During the past year, we have created an exhibition representing almost 100 years of art made by three artists with much in common: highly successful painting careers utilizing representational styles; a devotion to place, nature, history, and the arts; and a strong genetic bond. While communicating with individual collectors and generous museums around the country, we have worked hard to bring together the very best work we could for the people of this community, our state and our summer visitors. As we share the Wyeth works and art history, we encourage PFAC visitors (alone or with friends and family) to develop their own personal memories through experiences with this unique family and their artistic legacy. "
About The Peninsula Fine Arts Center
The Peninsula Fine Arts Center, founded in 1962 to encourage and develop an appreciation for the arts, is a non-profit institution accredited by the American Association of Museums. PFAC is located at 101 Museum Drive within the Mariners' Museum Park. Take Interstate 64 to exit 258A and proceed 2.5 miles to the intersection of Warwick and J. Clyde Morris Boulevards -- the Arts Center is straight ahead. Museum hours and fees are available on the Center's website.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in the Resource Library Magazine
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/2/11
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