That’s the view that the career-spanning retrospective N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives, which is currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art, reveals. His pieces, often vivid and fantastical, are narrative in nature; it makes sense, then, that he inspired the likes of Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Peer close enough and one could glean a story from all 50 displayed paintings and illustrations.
Having studied under Howard Pyle, the preeminent illustrator of his time, Wyeth first became known for his Western-themed illustrations. Just take a look at “Bucking Bronco,” which graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1903, the first of Wyeth’s illustrations to do so for a major magazine. Playing within the Western archetype, it depicts a cowboy donning a flash of red sitting atop a wild, brown horse. You can feel the action: the cowboy’s hat is flinging toward the print’s right edge as his arm swings backward, ready to tame. Ironically, the piece was done before Wyeth ever made it out West. According to the work’s placard, he drew his knowledge of equine anatomy from “hours of studying horses at polo grounds in Dedham, Massachusetts.”
Considered one of the greatest painters of the early 20th century, Wyeth is also the patriarch of a prominent artistic family — he’s the father of Andrew Wyeth and the grandfather of Jamie Wyeth. Ann Glasscock, Taft assistant curator, says that though many may be familiar with the work of his progeny, they hope to convey N.C.'s range in New Perspectives, which will be on display at the museum through May 3.
Co-organized by Pennsylvania's Brandywine River Museum of Art and Maine's Portland Museum of Art (PMA), New Perspectives — the first Wyeth retrospective in 50 years — was first exhibited at Brandywine from June 22 to Sept. 15, 2019, followed by a display at PMA, where it showed from Oct. 4 to Jan.12.
When Jamie Wyeth saw New Perspectives in Pennsylvania, Glasscock says he remarked that, because his grandfather dabbled in varying styles, from Cubism to Impressionism to Realism, that it looked like a group show.
“There’s going to be something for everyone,” Glasscock says. “I don’t think you want to miss the chance to see this show. It is the last stop (on the tour) and all the paintings will be dispersed back into collections, many of them private; many of the pieces came from the Wyeth Family Collection, so who knows when they’ll be on view again?”
Wyeth is perhaps best defined for bringing his vision to childhood classics, having lent his illustration work to 112 books. Of those, 25 were published as part of Charles Scribner's Sons Illustrated Classic series, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The oil painting was the first item I noticed upon entering the exhibition’s second section, which covered his work from 1911-1917 illustrating for books and magazines. “Treasure Island” feels yanked straight out of a storybook. A band of pirates armed with various weapons charge down an off-white sandy beach as seagulls seemingly retreat in the distance. Painted in monochrome, the pirates stand stark against a vibrant golden sky.
The commissioned work allowed Wyeth enough revenue to build his own house and studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and garnered him more national recognition. He would continue to create illustrations for novels but wasn’t content to stay in only one lane.
In his own words: “I have come to one conclusion, and that is painting and illustration cannot be mixed — one cannot merge from one into the other… The viewpoints of the painter and the illustrator are so entirely different.”
As cited in the exhibition’s third section “Painting the Pennsylvania Countryside,” this belief brought Wyeth to carve out time for painting while still continuing to accept commissions.
Glasscock notes that while his fine paintings and illustrations honed in on disparate subjects — landscapes and portraits of people and places he held dear versus worlds anchored in fiction — she thinks the work ties together.
“I think the common thread is the fact that he's telling a story with all of these works,” she says. “Visual storytelling is a big part of Wyeth’s life and career. Whether he's telling somebody else's story in his illustrations, or with his non-commissioned fine art painting, those all gave him a chance to tell the stories of the people and places that were important to him.”
Reality and fantasy bleed together on the gallery’s navy walls; “Captain Nemo,” a 1918 illustration for Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, is particularly striking. The famed captain’s eyes sink back into shadows yet stare directly outward. His pale skin coupled with wavy, white hair — both atop his head and in his beard — evokes an air of otherworldliness. Framed in gold patterns with nautical-esque swirls, that feeling becomes even more pronounced.
Across the way is a portrait of Wyeth’s mother, painted four years after her death. Both homey and warm, yet spectral, Glasscock says it is one of her personal favorites in the collection because of Wyeth’s use of objects to tell a story.
“It’s a painting of his mother standing in the kitchen at his boyhood home,” she says of the work. “He’s depicting all these objects that allude to comfort, so there’s a chair, a whistling tea kettle, she’s in the middle of baking. All of that just kind of tells you what it was like to grow up in the Wyeth home.”
The show’s last section features paintings from 1925 up until Wyeth’s sudden death in 1945 by way of a car accident. Wielding dreamy imagery and bold coloring, this section features mostly landscapes of Chadds Ford and Port Clyde, Maine, where he purchased a vacation home in 1920.
From the folky aesthetic of “The Harbor at Herring Gut” to the muted modernist work “Ridge Church,” there’s much to see here, right down to the show’s tail end. Before exiting, guests arrive at 1939’s “Island Funeral.” From a bird’s eye view, Wyeth crafted a visually stunning scene of people gathering for the funeral of a patriarch of a historic Maine lobstering family. Appearing more like the Carribean Sea, the harbor’s potent blue-green color came out of an informal relationship with a chemist at the company Dupont, which had recently developed what Glasscock says were “fast and synthetic dyes.” Wyeth incorporated these into pigments for several of his paintings, allowing him to create bright, intense coloring.
As the section’s description explains, his aspirations to be seen as a fine painter as much as a beloved illustrator were never fully realized, though they would be through his son, Andrew, perhaps most famous for his painting “Christina’s World.” Yet Wyeth’s influence still inspires modern mythmakers; several of his works will be on permanent display at the currently-under-construction Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which was founded by none other than Star Wars creator George Lucas. The director, alongside George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) have credited Wyeth as having influenced their own understandings of what an adventure story could look like.
In threading his commercial work as an illustrator with his fine art, New Perspectives finally gives Wyeth the recognition he sought, and deserved, in his lifetime.
New Perspectives is on view at the Taft Museum of Art (316 Pike St., Downtown) through May 3. The museum will host several events in conjunction with the show. Tickets/more info: taftmuseum.org.