Today it’s raining in Chadds Ford, PA. Big drops fall from the ancient sycamores. Off in foggy Brandywine Valley, the witch hazel and pignut hickory still hold their muted colours. Great black trunks narrow down to sharp and random spikes. Cattle wait on the hillsides and solemn crows grumble along an old stone wall. This is Wyeth country.
I’m standing for the first time before the N.C. Wyeth oils in the Brandywine River Museum. I can still inhale the Scribner’s classics of my youth: “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” “The Boy’s King Arthur.” These early paintings are huge. They exude vitality and robustness.
Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945), the father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie, built his home and studio here in 1911 with the proceeds of work done for Scribner’s. He was a pupil of the great illustrator Howard Pyle, who kept a studio and school in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. Wyeth joined him at age 20 and within a year was selling his work to publishers. Pyle’s school was free — he picked and chose his students. Many were to become the godfathers of American illustration.
In 1989, Andrew taped a most remarkable conversation about his father. A transcript is available in “Three Generations of Wyeth Art” published by the museum. It’s a candid and loving portrait about growing up with a sensitive and dynamic dad. It’s also about choosing a creative path of one’s own.
“Some artists get things right with almost no knowledge at all,” says Andrew, “much better than if they go out and search for it. Pa’s best paintings were spontaneous ideas. A concept needs the juice, the essence of the thing, more than all the theory or more knowledge.”
A great reader, N.C. was for the most part self-educated. In consequence, he respected those with a formal education. As his fame grew, critics, publishers, and other artists befriended him. He listened to them and “became agitated.” He was frequently advised to stop painting illustrations and make “real” art. “Pa made many dramatic changes in his life; reacting to specific artists,” says Andrew. “Even my influence was not good for him. My father lost his excitement for painting. He lost the vitality.”
PS: “‘Treasure Island’ is completed! The entire set of seventeen canvases without one break in my enthusiasm and spirit. Better in every quality than anything I ever did.” (N.C. Wyeth, age 29, in a letter to his mother, July 26, 1911)
Esoterica: N.C. was an energetic, driven painter who learned fast with the help of Pyle. He drew basic elements in charcoal with little recourse to models, with the exception of hands. A believer in big brushes and big gobs on his palette, N.C. Wyeth came to understand early on that speed itself enhanced freshness. Andrew reports that the painting “Train Robbery,” illustrated below, was painted from scratch in a single morning.
N.C. Wyeth early work
N.C. Wyeth late work
The Holy Grail
by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA
Isn’t that a wonderful place! N.C. Wyeth’s Scribner’s work, along with Norman Rockwell’s Post covers steeped my boyhood in what I’d like to do more than anything else. Standing before those paintings of N.C.’s and Andrew’s, and Jamie’s, studying every small brush trace and implied texture of Andrew’s, and the bold and brave light of N. C.’s work is like standing before the Holy Grail.
by Todd Butt, Trenton, OH, USA
Thank you for bringing back the memories of my trip to the museum some twenty-three years ago. Thinking about it still brings goosebumps. I carried my year old son for three hours … the best three hours we ever spent together though he was asleep for most of it and probably doesn’t remember a minute. The Wyeth’s paintings were an inspiration that have kept me going through realism to where I am today. The generations in that family are what each artist yearns for within his/her own … they are a lucky American family. As I put him into his car seat and tried to straighten my arm, I realize how special he would always be as those were in the Wyeth family.
Filtering more difficult than ever
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada
I’ve been wondering about this… the loss of vitality and originality, as a result of outside influences. It strikes me that if N.C. Wyeth and others of past generations had difficulty filtering out the un-helpful new ideas and advice, it must be much harder for creative people today, bombarded as we are by so many distractions (many of which we don’t recognize as such). Without realizing it, we often trade “the essence of the thing,” as Andrew called it, for the thing we think might sell or be popular, the thing we think we ought to be doing, or the thing we’d like to do if we were a bit more skilled or… the list goes on. Gradually I’m getting better at quieting myself, learning to stay centered and that does seem to help me recognize the true and vital work when it comes along.
Enjoy your own fingerprint
by Carol Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
Some say it’s ”mind over matter… and if I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!” Others have said that the greatest tool of the Devil is DOUBT. Then what happens? It only takes a small reprimand to a child to make a big impact. If one is told they should be different, or like somebody else, or better than somebody else, the usual reactions are to run in the other direction and boldly forge upstream to all criticism, OR adapt, acquiesce, give in, or give up.
Perhaps N.C. Wyeth found a third direction? Perhaps he found a higher purpose and completed his artistic sojourn? Perhaps he found peace in just being instead of doing? Who knows for sure? What matters to the viewers of his artwork now, is the personal reaction we get from seeing into his visions. The works in the Museum touched me deeply when I made a pilgrimage from California to the Brandywine Valley a few years ago. Maxfield Parrish, Pyle and the Wyeth family let the beauty and the power of their stories stay in our imaginations, and silenced the critics who questioned their longevity and worth. Some people go down in flames from ‘terminal uniqueness’ — why not? Enjoy your own special fingerprint, and leave an imprint that no one can copy!
Let no one tell you what to do
by Daniel Norris, Jasper, GA, USA
I think what happens is that we lose focus if not careful. You’re having fun, creating, maybe not understanding how are why when the naysayers, judges, critics, i.e. the world come up and begin to kiss and kiss your arse alternately, unless your incredibly grounded those ol’ parent tapes of being a team player, getting along, not offending, etc. If only you would loosen up, tighten up, make it more abstract and cryptic but not to the point that no one understands it. Oh wait, no worry there will always be someone who pretends to understand it and throw a trinket your way. Bottom line be open to learning technique, discipline etc but let NO ONE tell you what or how or why to paint. That’s gotta come from you. And in the end it is the PEOPLE who judge with their wallets that make it all work and allow you to keep going. Unless you’ve won the lottery or something. Ribbons — six judges same art show six different days… six different results… get it? If Santa Claus is everywhere he is nowhere.
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Some changes not part of the path
by oliver , TX, USA
It is hard to know one’s true path. One must listen, learn and grow and these changes can help one develop and the struggles in new phases may not be as rewarding as the old safe things. On the other hand some changes are not necessarily part of the path, or at least the best part of the path, or mark a phase where one must return to the former path older and wiser.
An electrical connection
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
It’s different for each of us. Some of us are fused by formal education; others need a day in the woods. A trip to an art museum fuels the fire inside, either the inspiration of aspiration or the realization of one’s own ability. In both cases there is the urge to go home and create!
But when does this enthusiasm diminish? How does that happen? How do we keep the heart fires burning? How do we avoid the decline in the first place? Again, I suppose it is different for each of us. For me it is too much input. It is true in every creative piece of my life. I reach out for support and for my muses. I look for inspiration when I am a blank canvas. But there is a vanishing point of ‘vigour, spirit and enthusiasm’ that happens when there is more information than imagination, too much stillness and not enough experimenting. I need to exercise my chops on the back side of meditation. That heightened energetic dervish slathers paint onto the canvas, pours words onto the page in paragraphs and chapters, hears the music of the rivers and streams accompanying my own footsteps as I fly home to play it out on the piano.
The vanishing point is a clue for me, a sign that I am too much of something and I need a jolt. My mind is cluttered with words or processes or advice. Or I have reflected long enough and the stillness has become a stupor. I know it is time to move. I do not know the mechanics of this process. I feel it is about connection, electrical and energetic. It is felt and manifests in a moment. It can be a surprise or it can come in the middle of a diligent effort. It is rich and deep and broad … and the source of life.
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World of adventure and insight
by Kristina Zallinger, Hamden, CT, USA
N. C. Wyeth is one of my heroes! His work, in some ways, surpasses that of his son, Andrew or grandson, Jamie. Dare I say that? I prefer to be candid. It is my way. The powerful effect of N.C.’s illustrations (yes, “art”!) is overwhelming. They live in a world of adventure and insight. The elder Wyeth really knew how to paint! A lack of formal education did not get in his way. It made him stronger. No one, to date, could carry off his ability to “feel” his subject matter and give such a glorious life to it! His palette enhanced his bold images. His visual “thoughts” are etched in my mind forever! N. C. created a world that will never be forgotten.
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Blowing by the interruptions
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
Listening to those around him while he was at the top of his game makes no sense to me. I believe we all look for guidance and approval from our peers when we are starting out. As we grow we usually get more independent and confident in our work. And with that confidence come quickness and spontaneous work. Such as the Train Robbery, done in one morning. I find that when you rely on your own instincts and inspirations, the work will flow at a rate that is unbelievable. Letting the work guide you instead of your thoughts, technical knowledge, and the comments of others getting in the way. I’m sure that a lot of these are present subconsciously, but are so far on the back burner that the speed of the work blows by the interruptions so that they don’t have time to slow down the process.
The Dusty Jar
by Nancy Wostrel, San Diego, CA, USA
I wanted to ask if you saw the painting of N.C Wyeth titled Dusty Bottle ? I saw it many years ago in the basement of the museum and the painted dust was so real you wanted to take a rag and clean off the green glass jar. It has always remained in my memory as well as my time spent staying with friends in Chadds Ford. A very special place indeed and a very special family.
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. I did and I went back and looked at it again on the second day. Something interesting about that painting: N.C. signed it at the upper right and wrote “3 hrs.” after his name. Sorry, we can’t find any colour photos online to share.
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‘Come on over’
by Madeleine Kelly, Ridley Park, PA, USA
You are in my stomping grounds. I used to have a store in Chadds Ford where there is a Bistro now near Rte 100. Andrew Wyeth and another painter whom I admired (since passed ), Rea Redifer, would frequently drop in the pub and Hanks. Rea’s work can be found at the Chadds Ford Gallery on Rte 1. He admired his friend Andrew to a fault I fear… there is a lot of passion in Rea’s work. He was a civil war history writer and painter and I believe he had some history working in film, at least that is what he told me. Please check out his work if you get a chance.
If perhaps you are traveling towards Philadelphia (we are about 20 minutes down Rte 1), I have a studio with 30 other artists in an old mill town. I like to call it “the town that time forgot.” It has lots of history and hasn’t quite gotten out of the prior century. There are 30 artists in our converted mill preparing for an open studio show in a few weeks. So the place is buzzing. We would love it if you get a chance to stop by. I am on the second floor and am offering my cell (as the doors are locked) if you would like to visit our studios. After many years of reading your twice-weekly letters it is as if you are an old friend.
(RG note) Thanks, Madeleine. By the time my letter arrived we had left Chadds Ford. Thanks also to the many readers in PA and Delaware who offered meals, drinks, visits, friendships and an opportunity to hang out. Incidentally, we saw some of Rea’s work and ate at Hanks: “Where nice folks meet and hungry folks eat.” It all made us feel, well, very welcome, very down-home USA.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Angela Treat Lyon of Hawaii, USA who wrote, “The Chess Game looks absolutely lickable it’s so rich. I had to get up and walk across the room to get a better look — the background is so dense with abstract dashes of such luscious color. I agree — what have we lost, indeed!”
And also J. Menard who wrote, “There is an old French proverb: ‘Everything palls, everything perishes, everything passes.’ Maybe N.C. was just bored with the knowledge that he could do beautiful work. It happens.”
Enjoy the past comments below for What happens?…