The recent letter Hothouse effect generated some curiosity about the Wyeths: “What kind of role model was N. C. Wyeth?” “What secrets were behind all the creativity in that family?” Here are a few indications:
Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) took art seriously. Influenced by Howard Pyle, he had a steady focus, intellectual passion, and his studio life was at the center. As the Wyeth children came into their own, they were witness to their father’s work habits and the steady flow of publishers and art directors to his studio at Chadds Ford. They knew what could be done. They were encouraged to be self starters. Their independent workspaces were within easy distance and they took an interest in each other’s work. It was reported that they withdrew like snails when so-called “bores” came onto the property to waste their time. To some, the Wyeths often appeared to be not at home.
At the same time NC made his studio into an extended and informal school. He critiqued and mentored promising young artists and often found accommodation for them nearby. Everyone in the family was encouraged to follow their own direction: Ann had her first symphony performed before the age of twenty. Nathaniel became an inventive scientist. Andrew became one of the best known painters of his time. The Wyeth children were blessed with a wise, affectionate, devoted mother and an irrepressible father. Both parents expected excellence of themselves — as a matter of course they expected it of others. So much of the effectiveness of the Wyeths springs from the dynamic nature of NC. One thing is sure: Mentoring comes naturally to one who has been mentored.
He probed at the gaps in his knowledge.
He lived and acted in an impulsive fantasy of heroism.
He felt kinship with the land and valued its history.
He loved his studio and promoted studio-centricity.
He flayed at his weaknesses and boasted of his triumphs.
He was physical, direct, energetic, and creatively quick.
He insisted that everyone have times of concentration.
He implanted the thought of great possibilities.
He took part in and encouraged the play of life.
He believed in a steady, hard and private study of the
PS: “NC really didn’t talk about the mechanics of picture making. He opened our eyes and minds to life and made us want to express what we found.” (son-in-law John McCoy)
Esoterica: The Brandywine Tradition by Henry C Pitz, gives an appreciative look at the remarkable family of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. “It was a closely knit and self-sufficient group, greatly inventive, full of pranks and resources—they stimulated and struck sparks from one another.” (Henry Pitz)
A virtual tour of N. C. Wyeth’s studio is at http://www.brandywine.org/museum/ncstudio.html
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
by Phyllis Floyd
N.C. may have been pretty good as an illustrator. Andrew and his son Jamie, in my view, are uninteresting. I believe it is accurate to say that most of the painting community in New York does not take them seriously.
(RG note) Where is New York?
Memories of Pyle, Schoonover and Wyeth
by Raymond Olivere, New York City, USA
At the tender age of 10 I was the last Howard Pyle scholarship student at the old Wilmington Academy of Art in Wilmington, Delaware. This was where Pyle lived, painted and taught. I studied under Frank Schoonover, another renowned Pyle student, and was fortunate to also go out to Mr. Wyeth’s studio at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania; a short drive from Wilmington every Saturday afternoon for several months. Two years later Mr. Wyeth came into Wilmington to talk to us on our Tuesday night class and continued to do so for two months. He was indeed an imposing figure. He so strongly believed in the classical apprentice method of teaching that he fought the board of education of Pennsylvania in order to take his children out of school and have them study in his studio in the mornings and have them tutored in the afternoons. He succeeded and that is why they all became such fine artists. He once said to me: “Andy, Henrietta and Carolyn are a helluva lot better artists that I am.” I have never believed that. It is true that N. C. Wyeth seldom went into the “nuts and bolts” of drawing and painting, much to my disappointment at that early age, but rather constantly stressed reading and would regale us with stories about life and its unlimited possibilities. He was a philosopher, an inspiration and a wonderful person. I shall never forget those early years!
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
It pains me to have to say this, because you have never struck me as a sexist individual, but you, like 99% of writers on art, have erred by omission in the letter concerning the Wyeths. You name every member of the family except, of course, the mother. You do give her credit (“wise, affectionate, devoted”), but do not name her. No one does. No doubt she had a name, and an existence, and was worthy as an individual, not just as a womb and a nurturer. But in your piece, she exists only as a function: mother. Most of the credit for his own success and his children’s talent goes to dear old dad — as if, like Athena, the offspring sprang from Zeus’s (NC’s) forehead. It takes two to tango, Robert, and all painters had mothers. Mom is a person; why not say so?
(RG note) Point taken. Information on Carolyn Wyeth (Carolyn Brenneman Bockius) is pretty thin. I’ve always been particularly interested in the influence of mothers on artists — so if I’m able to find out some valuable items I will perhaps write about her. I’m also interested in situations where parents as different as night and day produce abnormally capable offspring. We do know that Carolyn was quiet and unassuming, a member of the Unitarian Church, and introduced the reading of H. D. Thoreau into the Wyeth family. With regard to the sexist thing, every once in a while I get a letter from a male subscriber who grumbles that I’m consciously giving the Twice-Weekly letters a feminist spin.
by Bill Cannon, California, USA
I’ve always loved the work of Andrew Wyeth. I saw the Helga exhibit and have the catalogue. Amazing work, but… why? It’s also amazing that Christina’s World is thought to be ‘Modern Art.’
(RG note) The “why” of why art touches and communicates is one of the vital questions that all artists have to ask, Christina’s World is one of the best known and most discussed American paintings. Christina Olson was a neighbor of the Wyeth’s at their summer home near Cushing, Maine. She was crippled by infantile paralysis. Wyeth came upon her one day (1948) near the family burying ground looking at her house from the wide field in front of it. From the memory if this incident he developed the tempera painting. He also painted her in 1947 seated on the threshold of her open doorway. Andrew Wyeth seldom painted more than one figure in a composition. Home schooled, he was brought up in a stimulating environment that stressed individuality and solitary pursuits. The painting has some valuable pictorial elements — the averted face, which suggests rather than identifies. The painting also includes the typically gothic idea of a home or building as secondary motif. By giving this sense of place one is invited to conclude what sort of person Christina might be. Also there is the psychological value of placing elements isolated from one another in a defining space. The title is also well chosen — enigmatic.
An essay about Andrew Wyeth by Brian O’Doherty is at http://www.artchive.com/artchive/W/wyeth.html
I have a large and impressive studio on acreage in the same way as Andrew Wyeth and other members of his family. A couple of years ago I borrowed heavily to build this studio. It has turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. People see it as an impressive building and make the connection that I must be an impressive artist. You mention studio-centricity and I have never heard the word before, but that’s what it is. People beat a path to my door. Incidentally, I also love my studio. It makes me feel like “The King.”
Truth without embellishment
by Laura Parrish, Glen Allen, VA, USA
I’m a portrait artist, and something about the style of Andrew Wyeth’s portraits speak to me. It’s because the beauty of the portrait is in the truth of his subject. My clients often have a preconceived idea of how they want a portrait of their child to look (hanging over the sofa) that has little to do with the true beauty of the child. Andrew Wyeth sees the truth in his subjects and has the courage to depict that truth without embellishment. I was first told about your website and Twice Weekly Letters by a fellow home-schooling artist-mom. Andrew Wyeth was home-schooled, and one of my favorite home-schooling quotes is N.C.’s. “The sheep-like tendency of human society soon makes inroads on a child’s unsophistications, and then popular education completes the dastardly work with its systematic formulas, and away goes the individual, hurtling through space into that hateful oblivion of mediocrity. We are pruned into stumps, one resembling another, without character or grace.” (N. C. Wyeth)
by Bonnie Cruickshank
Isn’t it funny how serendipity works? I have just returned home from an incredibly wonderful day. Our new local gallery had its “grandly creative opening” today and now I have just read your “Hothouse effect” letter, which fits the occasion expressly! A group of us all worked together at different projects during the day and the energy between us was hugely positive and life affirming. The sharing of space together certainly is an expansive way to learn, grow and become aware of that great creative spirit that is within all of us who would venture on the path.
(RG note) “Hothouse effect” deals with stimulating creative familial settings. It’s at
by Claude Courvoisier
How do you manage to fly on a plane with your painting supplies? Are there some new regulations?
I once read the little booklet of the do and don’ts (forbidden list of items on a plane) and “paints” is one of those. So for example for your workshop in Brittany are the painting supplies provided on site? Do the participants have the possibility to buy the paints? Are all flammable paints now forbidden on a plane?
(RG note) Perhaps subscribers would care to advise Claude and the rest of us of any recent changes in this matter. Currently, after a short explanation at the check-ins, I’m not having any problems with acrylic materials. We recently looked at airplane etiquette at http://painterskeys.com/traveltips/
Don’t abuse your power
Name withheld by request
I’ve been connected with an older artist for many years who believed very much in the power of artists working as a group. I devoted a great deal of time for the good of the group along with some other artists. Over the years there have been some positives and negatives. In the beginning it seemed to be a very positive thing and I learned quite a bit. However, I can relate very much to “always the bridesmaid never the bride” especially when there is an artist who is supposed to be the leader of the group. Many times, the contacts others and I have made ended up being funneled right to the leader, enhancing his reputation and sales. A leader of a group like this has a great responsibility to act with the best intentions. Unfortunately, “friendly competition” was promoted by playing one artist against the other without mutual respect. Gloating on successes and heaping praise on the artists who worked for the group as the leader saw fit, promoted feelings of lack of worth and anger in others who were put in the hot seat for not working in line with the leader’s ideals. This was supposed to motivate artists to work for the group and had the opposite effect. While newcomers were still in the “honeymoon phase” some of the older more experienced artists left usually disgraced and their contributions never mentioned. As far as workshops go maybe this is a way that the hothouse effect can be positive as artists come together for a short time, trading inspiration and knowledge, where the dark side of long term relationships is never experienced. I am writing this to warn young artists that while you may learn to paint better from a very good artist in a studio setting rather than in a university, there is always the risk of falling into disfavor with the head of the school who can abuse the power. In an accredited school you may not get along with one professor but they can’t take the degree away from you. I also have a warning to artists who find themselves with a certain power over their students or followers: Be aware when someone chooses to learn from you they are investing their valuable time which could be spent achieving their goals by other avenues. You are not indispensable or the only one who knows anything. Don’t abuse your power, as you may find that in the end it comes back to haunt you in ways you would never suspect.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Sandy Sandy who reminds us that, “We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
And also Gra-anna Saunders-Goldman of Machynlleth, Snowdonia, Wales who sends the following poem:
I wish for you a boundless freedom
to taste and feel and dance
through an eternity that takes
and holds you gently to meet
with your perfected fruit
to begin again in new ways
the dance of life ever flowing
rising, falling, breathing
witnessing the breath set free
the body to express and summon
moving to the sound
a voice set free
a changing ecstasy
a vessel of wholeness
the dawn, the colour, the dew, the sun.