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photograph by Daniel Jackson

New Perspectives on N. C. Wyeth

Well known during the twentieth century for his bold, imaginative illustrations that brought new characterizations to classic stories such as Treasure Island and The Boy’s King Arthur, N. C. Wyeth (1882–1945) vigorously pursued parallel interests in painting landscapes, seascapes, portraits, still lifes, murals and advertising images throughout his career.

N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives examines in depth the entirety of Wyeth’s oeuvre, repositioning him within the greater context of early twentieth-century American visual culture. The exhibition it accompanies was organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art (where it is on view from June 22nd until Shttps://www.brandywine.org/museum/exhibitions/n-c-wyeth-new-perspectiveseptember 15th, 2019) and the Portland Museum of Art (where it will be from October 4th until January 12th, 2020). The exhibition will then travel to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati (February 8–May 3, 2020).

Exhibition co-curators Christine Podmaniczky (CP), Curator of N. C. Wyeth Collections at the Brandywine, and Jessica May (JM), Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator at the Portland Museum of Art, sat down to discuss the project and review some of the rationale and planning behind this major presentation of N. C. Wyeth’s work.

What were your goals in planning this exhibition?

CP: Our main goal is to introduce new audiences to N. C. Wyeth’s work and highlight his place within the broad spectrum of early twentieth-century visual arts. People tend to know Wyeth, if at all, as an illustrator of classic romance and adventure tales, or as the patriarch of one of the most distinguished families in American art. This exhibition aims to replace those rather restrictive assessments with a more complete and layered account of Wyeth’s creative life.

JM: One of the things that I found so fascinating as I worked with Christine on this project is the depth and nuance that emerged in this re-evaluation of Wyeth’s art and life. The catalogue is a real testament to the fact that Wyeth’s adult life was riven by complexity and contradiction—far from being above the fray of the early twentieth century in global history, he seems to have absorbed and internalized the tumult.

How is your approach to this exhibition different from past exhibitions on N. C. Wyeth?

CP: The last major overview of Wyeth’s career took place in the early 1970s at the Brandywine. The selection focused mainly on his illustrations. Since then, there have been narrowly focused studies—on his Western work, for example—but no examination of his entire career. Wyeth was a very complex artistic personality and that becomes evident only as one experiences the whole range of his subject matter and styles. Hopefully, the upcoming exhibition will encourage the visitor to meet N. C. Wyeth as an incredibly versatile artist who worked across the perceived divisions of visual culture in illustration, advertising, mural work and private painting.

JM: In Maine, Wyeth is often shown as a painter of Maine, which is both true and a bit misleading: Wyeth clearly loved Maine—it was a big part of his life, and of course Chadds Ford (or the Brandywine Valley) was the center of his life—but he was a painter of the American scene, broadly considered. I think that the opportunity to see him working on a national scale from these beloved locations will be a real revelation for many audiences.

N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943, tempera on hardboard (Renaissance Panel), 35 x 38”. Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine. Bequest of Elizabeth B. Noyce, 1996.38.63

Can you detail some of the practical challenges you encountered in organizing the exhibition?

CP: Right from our initial discussions we knew that because of the embarrassment of riches in Wyeth’s career—he completed about 2,000 paintings—there would be tough choices to make in order to narrow it down for the exhibition.

JM: Christine knows these paintings backwards and forwards, so keeping up with her astonishing breadth of knowledge was my main challenge! What a joy to work with a colleague who is so knowledgeable and generous. In all seriousness, every show changes a lot when it moves from one museum to the next, and this project is no exception. Visitors to the Brandywine will see a much larger show than visitors to the Portland Museum of Art or the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, because our galleries are differently configured and the show will thus have fewer paintings. I think that it is always an interesting point of comparison between installations. I urge visitors to try to see an exhibition in multiple locations to see how different curators tell the same story.

What might younger audiences who may not be familiar with the work of N. C. Wyeth find appealing, and maybe even surprising, about his work?

CP: In many ways, this exhibition is aimed at younger audiences, who perhaps didn’t grow up with the N. C. Wyeth illustrated classics. The exhibition will introduce them to the work of a very accessible painter, a master colorist and craftsman, a narrative-based artist who really offered something for everyone. He was a pictorial raconteur who unerringly selected the most dramatic or compelling scenes to depict and then added his own spin to more fully explore a narrative thread. And the paintings are certainly “family friendly.” They’re big, colorful, filled with the most arresting characters and interesting detail—many expressly made to energize young imaginations. N. C. Wyeth worked commercially to great acclaim during his career, in advertising, filmmaking, and illustrating
novels and children’s books.

N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Saturday Evening Post, cover (Bucking Bronco), 1903, oil on canvas on hardboard, 27 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles

In what ways has his vision influenced others in those fields?

JM: One of the things we know for sure is that after World War I, Wyeth received many visiting emissaries from Hollywood at his home in Chadds Ford, and entertained offers to come to Hollywood. It’s clear that his nuanced grasp of how to create drama and emotional power through the composition and light effects in a single image was not only influential, but also established a certain visual standard for dramatic (and exciting) imagery.

CP: Wyeth’s influence still energizes the film industry today. Just recently, the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel drew on Wyeth’s compositions and lighting for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The introduction to each segment of the tale evoked the classic illustrated Western books of Wyeth’s early career. From Disney artists (Treasure Planet, 2002) to the Star Wars saga, Wyeth’s staging and storytelling abilities, his mastery of color, his techniques of using light and shadow have been inspirational. Director George Lucas has included several Wyeth paintings in the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, suggesting his regard for Wyeth’s contributions to his own style of visual storytelling. In the field of illustration, many artists cite Wyeth’s images as inspiration—an example that comes to mind is the work of artist and author Gregory Manchess. His paintings for his novel Above the Timberline (2017) owe a spiritual and technical debt to Wyeth and other Golden Age illustrators.

Christine, as someone who has devoted decades of study to the work of N. C. Wyeth, was there anything you have seen/learned/refocused on that you are excited to share for this exhibition?

CP: I’m very excited about bringing paintings to Chadds Ford that our regular fans of N. C. Wyeth haven’t seen here, at least not in a very long time. Two not to miss: The Man with the Hatful of Cards, featuring Will Bill Hickok, is one of Wyeth’s most spellbinding Western illustrations, generously loaned from the William I. Koch Collection; and The Lobsterman (The Doryman), loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one of Wyeth’s late, great tempera paintings. I’m also thrilled with the depth and diversity of the catalogue essays. We asked several established and emerging scholars with various specialties in early twentieth-century art to situate Wyeth within the history of American visual arts, and their contributions have suggested new areas of thinking that bring fresh perspectives to Wyeth studies.

And Jessica, as someone who brings a fresh voice to the conversation, what about Wyeth appeals to you?

JM: For me there was a very human lesson embedded in this project: through this exhibition, I think we all stand to learn about the breadth of Wyeth’s artistic ambitions and the genuinely astonishing range of his talent. The man was an indomitably hard worker, but his paintings make it look easy. All of that said, I was stunned to learn how much time Wyeth spent disappointed because he felt he was not taken seriously as an artist. He took the hierarchy between illustration and supposed “fine art,” very seriously, and it seems to have created in him a sense of “less than,” which—based on the evidence of so many fascinating and wonderful paintings across every genre—seems like such a human tragedy.

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