Newell Convers Wyeth, known as N. C. Wyeth to the public, was an American artist and illustrator. He learned from artist Howard Pyle and became one of America’s greatest illustrators. During his lifetime, Wyeth created over 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books. The first of these books, Treasure Island, was one of his masterpieces and the proceeds paid for his studio. Wyeth was a realist painter and the camera and photography would compete with his craft. Sometimes seen as melodramatic, his illustrations were designed to be understood quickly.
Wyeth was born in Needham, Massachusetts and was an ancestor of Nicholas Wyeth, a stonemason, whom came to Massachusetts from England in 1645. Later ancestors of Wyeth had prominent participation in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War, passing down rich oral histories and tradition to Wyeth and his family. Many of this stories provided great inspiration for the subject matter of his art. His maternal ancestors came from Switzerland, and during his childhood, his mother was acquainted with literary giants Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His literary appreciation and artistic talents appear to have come from his Mother.
He was the oldest of four brothers and as children they spent much time hunting, fishing, and enjoying other outdoor pursuits, and doing chores on their farm. His varied youthful activities and his naturally astute sense of observation later aided the authenticity of his illustrations.
His mother often encouraged his early inclination toward art; Wyeth was notably excellent at watercolor paintings by the age of twelve. He went to Mechanics Arts School to learn drafting, and then Massachusetts Normal Art Schoo, where painting instructor Richard Andrew advised him to become an illustrator, and then the Eric Pape School of Art to learn illustration, under George Loftus Noyes and Charles W. Reed.
When two of Wyeth’s friends were accepted to Howard Pyle’s School of Art in Wilmington, Delaware and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Wyeth was invited to join them in 1902. Pyle was the “father” of American illustration, and Wyeth immediately meshed with his methods and ideals. Pyle’s teachings often included excursions to historical sites and impromptu dramas using props and costumes, meant to stimulate imagination, emotion, atmosphere, and the observation of humans in action—all necessities for his style of illustration. Wyeth’s exuberant personality and talent made him a standout student. He admired great literature, music, and drama, and he enjoyed spirited conversation. Pyle in his teaching would stress historical accuracy and tinged it with a romantic aura. But where Pyle painted in exquisite detail, Wyeth veered toward looser, quicker strokes and relied on ominous shadows and moody backgrounds.
On February 21, 1903, Wyeth’s first commission as an illustrator appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. That year he described his work as “true, solid American subjects—nothing foreign about them.” It was a spectacular accomplishment for the 20-year-old Wyeth, after just a few months under Pyle’s tutelage. In 1904, the same magazine commissioned him to illustrate a Western story, and Pyle urged Wyeth to go West to acquire direct knowledge, much as Zane Grey had done for his Western novels. In Colorado, he worked as a cowboy alongside the professional “punchers”, moving cattle and doing ranch chores. He visited the Navajo in Arizona and gained an understanding of Native American culture. When his money was stolen, he worked as a mail carrier, riding between the Two Grey Hills trading post and Fort Defiance, to earn enough to get back home. He wrote home, “The life is wonderful, strange—the fascination of it clutches me like some unseen animal—it seems to whisper, ‘Come back, you belong here, this is your real home.'”
On a second trip to the West two years later, he collected information on mining and brought home costumes and artifacts, including cowboy and Indian clothing. His early trips to the western United States inspired a period of images of cowboys and Native Americans that dramatized the Old West. His depictions of Native Americans tended to be sympathetic, showing them in harmony with their environment, as demonstrated by In the Crystal Depths (1906).
Upon returning to Chadds Ford, he painted a series of farm scenes for Scribner’s, finding the landscape less dramatic than that of the West but nonetheless a rich environment for his art: “Everything lies in its subtleties, everything is so gentle and simple, so unaffected.” One of his paintings,Mowing (1907), created during this time, was among his most successful images of rural life.
In 1908, Wyeth married Carolyn Bockius of Wilmington and settled in Chadds Ford to raise a family on 18 acres near the historic Brandywine battlefield. By then commissions were coming in quickly. His hope had been that he would make enough money with his illustrations to be able to afford the luxury of painting what he wanted; but as his family and income grew, he found it difficult to break from illustration.
Wyeth created a stimulating household for his talented children Andrew Wyeth, Henriette Wyeth Hurd, Carolyn Wyeth, Ann Wyeth McCoy, and Nathaniel C. Wyeth. Wyeth was very sociable, and frequent visitors included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Hergesheimer, Hugh Walpole, Lillian Gish, and John Gilbert. According to Andrew, who spent the most time with his father due to his sickly childhood, Wyeth was a strict but patient father who did not talk down to his children. His hard work as an illustrator gave his family the financial freedom to follow their own artistic and scientific pursuits. Many of his children and grandchildren carried on lives of art and success.
By 1914, Wyeth loathed the commercialism upon which he became dependent, and for the rest of his life, he battled internally over his capitulation, accusing himself of having “bitched myself with the accursed success in skin-deep pictures and illustrations.” He complained of money men “who want to buy me piecemeal” and that “an illustration must be made practical, not only in its dramatic statement, but it must be a thing that will adapt itself to the engravers’ and printers’ limitations. This fact alone kills that underlying inspiration to create thought. Instead of expressing that inner feeling, you express the outward thought… or imitation of that feeling.”
By the 1930s, he restored an old captain’s house in Port Clyde, Maine, named “Eight Bells” after a Winslow Homer painting, and took his family there for summers, where he painted primarily seascapes. Museums started to purchase his paintings, and by 1941, he was elected to the National Academy and exhibited on a regular basis.
In 1945, Wyeth and his grandson (Nathaniel C. Wyeth’s son) were killed when the automobile they were riding in was struck by a freight train at a railway crossing near his Chadds Ford home. At the time, Wyeth had been working on an ambitious series of murals for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company depicting the Pilgrims at Plymouth, a series completed by Andrew Wyeth and John McCoy.
Significant public collections of Wyeth’s work are now on display at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, and in Maine, at the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. The Brandywine River Museum offers tours of the N. C. Wyeth House and Studio in Chadds Ford. The home and studio were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1997. The home and studio are open to the public for tours. His studio is set up as if he has just left — the palette he used on the day of his death sits by his last canvas.