Trivium Pursuit

Home-Spun Artists: Historical Sketches — N. C. Wyeth

Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945)
American Artist and Illustrator

N.C. Wyeth grew up in New England and as a child developed a love of nature.

My brothers and I were brought up on a farm, and from the time I could walk I was conscripted into doing every conceivable chore that there was to do about the place. This early training gave me a vivid appreciation of the part the body plays in action. Now, when I paint a figure on horseback, a man plowing, or a woman buffeted by the wind, I have an acute bodily sense of the muscle-strain, the feel of the hickory handle, or the protective bend of head and squint of eye that each pose involves.

Wyeth’s mother encouraged his early artistic talents, but his father preferred that he pursue the more practical trade of drafting. At age 20, Wyeth began studying under Howard Pyle where he learned Pyle’s rule of painting from experience, rather than the standard endless routine of copying from the classic plaster cast and drawing from the model. Pyle sought to teach his students to “paint living pictures rather than dead, inert matter in which there was not one single spark of real life.” Within a year of studying with Pyle, Wyeth had his first illustration published — the February, 1903, cover for The Saturday Evening Post (painting of a bronco buster). Over his lifetime, Wyeth produces nearly 4000 artworks for books (including many classics), magazines, calendars, posters, murals, and even maps for the National Geographic Society. Most of his work was done in oils, although the last ten years of his life he worked in egg tempera.

He and his wife Carolyn had five children: Henriette, Carolyn, Nathaniel, Ann, and Andrew. Each of the children became distinguished in their individual careers. Wyeth was an extraordinary and enthusiastic father, always curious. Family was very important to him and he took a personal interest in the training of his children.

We make a great deal of these simple experiences [walking through the countryside with his small children]. I believe them to be the real foundation of one of the most profound ethical ideas in regard to early training, to obtain the utmost of pleasure and inspiration for the simplest and homeliest events of the life about us.

Walks through the countryside were a family habit, with the goal of discovering and exploring the wonders of nature, and Wyeth’s natural curiosity about everything was clearly communicated to his children, which in turn helped to develop their own creativity. Daughter Ann remembers that her father would sit for hours on the front porch studying the changing lights and shadows as they passed over the sea and landscape.

The Wyeths sent their young children to a nearby Montessori school, which at that time was quite a rarity. As the children grew older, and public education proved unacceptable, Wyeth took them out of the formal classroom setting and hired tutors.

Every mother’s son of us is born with that supreme gift of individual perception, but the sheeplike 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, hurling through space into that hateful oblivion of mediocrity.

All five of the Wyeth children were individually tutored and freed from the “menace of all organized schools and colleges.” The Wyeth children’s education was rigorous.

All the ‘natural’ talents of youth cannot take the place of disciplined training. Beethoven was a prodigy as a boy pianist, but witness the infinite and painstaking training which followed his initial flowering. Without this exhaustive discipline we would not have had the Beethoven of the nine symphonies.

Henriette (married Peter Hurd, a student of her father’s), Carolyn, and Andrew worked with their father in his studio for several hours each day and each went on to become well-known artists. Ann (married John W. McCoy, a student of her father’s) studied piano with a tutor and went on to become an artist and composer. Nathaniel’s interests as a boy were in the direction of mechanical structure and he went on to become a design engineer.

Wyeth required his students to study basic geometric forms first, mastering these simple tasks, before moving on to still life and then landscapes. He believed that knowledge came first, then creative interpretation. Wyeth would often advise young artists.

The genuineness of the artist’s work depends upon the genuineness of the artist’s living. In other words, art is not what you do, it is what you are. We cannot in art produce a fraction more than what we are.

Practical application
A good artist is not produced by merely sitting in a room drawing pictures. To encourage the creativity in your young artist, give him experiences from which to draw on: allow him to raise and train animals; make collections of quantities of specimens from nature; observe people, places, and things; work hard; and play freely.

Examples of work Wyeth did for Scribner (25 in all):

Treasure Island 1911 Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sampo 1912 James Baldwin
Kidnapped 1913 Robert Louis Stevenson
The Black Arrow 1916 Robert Louis Stevenson
The Boy’s King Arthur 1917 Sidney Lanier
The Mysterious Island 1918 Jules Verne
The Last of the Mohicans 1919 James Fenimore Cooper
Westward Ho 1920 Charles Kingsley
The Scottish Chiefs 1921 Jane Porter
Poems of American Patriotism 1922 Brander Matthews, ed.
David Balfour 1924 Robert Louis Stevenson
The Deerslayer 1925 James Fenimore Cooper
Michael Strogoff 1927 Jules Verne
Drums 1928 James Boyd
Jinglebob 1930 Philip Ashton Rollins
The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come 1931 John Fox, Jr
The Yearling 1939 Majorie Kinnan Rawlings

Examples of work Wyeth did for other publishers:

The Long Roll 1911 Mary Johnston, Houghton Mifflin
Pike County Ballads 1912 John Hay, Houghton Mifflin
Cease Firing 1912 Mary Johnston, Houghton Mifflin
War 1913 John Luther Long, Bobbs-Merrill
The Mysterious Stranger 1916 Mark Twain, Harpers
Robin Hood 1917 Paul Creswick, David McKay
The Courtship of Miles Standish 1920 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Houghton Mifflin
Robinson Crusoe 1920 Daniel Defoe, Cosmopolitan
Rip Van Winkle 1921 Washington Irving, David McKay
The White Company 1922 Arthur Conan Doyle, Cosmopolitan
Legends of Charlemagne 1924 Thomas Bullfinch, Cosmopolitan
The Odyssey of Homer 1929 George Herbert Palmer, Houghton Mifflin
Men of Concord 1936 Henry David Thoreau, Houghton Mifflin

4 Responses to “Home-Spun Artists: Historical Sketches — N. C. Wyeth”

  1. JenIG Says:

    The first pictures that you posted reminds me a bit of John Waterhouse. it has the same ‘feel’.

  2. Nancy Baetz Says:

    I just finished reading “Letters of a Woman Homesteader” by Elinore Pruitt Stewart, and N.C.Wyeth did the illustrations. It is a lovely collection of her correspondence to an old friend while she “proved up” on a homestead in the early 1900s. It only has six illustrations, but they are very lovely indeed.
    Thanks for Historical Sketches! I really am learning so much from you,
    blessings,
    Nancy

  3. Michael Santoro Says:

    Interesting site. Would you have any samples of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for the 1929 editon of The Odyssey of Homer, George Herbert Palmer, translator? I have not been able learn what the illustrations look like. Thanks. Michael

  4. Laurie Bluedorn Says:

    I’ve seen that book, but those illustrations aren’t in the public domain so can’t be posted on the internet.

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