Artistic revolution

The two exhibitions that just opened at the Brandywine River Museum are particularly relevant as the nation remembers the attacks on its institutions and people with thousands of ceremonies across the country. The art in these exhibitions looks to the spiritual nature of the beginnings of the nation and the spirit of the people who illustrated those origins.

"A Brush with Conflict: The Battle of Brandywine in Art" celebrates the 225th anniversary of one of the deadliest battles of the War of Independence. Images by artists of two centuries demonstrate the diversity of American cultural history. "N.C. Wyeth Arrives in Wilmington" not only celebrates the elder Wyeth’s art, but also the cultural landscape at the beginning of the 20th century, often known as the American Century.

Both shows are rich in old friends — standard works of art that are world-renowned — and rarely seen images and run through Nov. 24. The "Battle of Brandywine" show does not include any historical documents or informational artifacts such as maps or engravings. However, less than a mile up the road, part of the battle site has been preserved as the Brandywine Battlefield Park, whose visitors’ center displays documents and artifacts from the battle. It’s an opportunity to witness firsthand the source of artistic inspiration and then to see how various artists have fulfilled that vision.

The N.C. Wyeth show celebrates the 100th anniversary of Oct. 24, 1902, the day Wyeth stepped off the train in Wilmington to study underfamed illustrator Howard Pyle. The exhibit is extraordinarily rich in Wyeth paintings in one eye-opening measure; the original art is displayed alongside a copy of the first-published illustration of that work.

There has always been a dialogue about why Wyeth created such large-scale works, only to have them reduced to magazine or book-sized engravings. This show should end all such talk as it clearly demonstrates that Wyeth was a painter whose works just happen to be made into illustrations in popular mass media.

Around the turn of the century, more than 5,500 periodicals were being published and this media provided what television, movies and the Internet do today. In several collages, the museum shows examples of the many publications and also the many types of Wyeth works that were used to illustrate the copy. Magazines and other periodicals were even more popular with the growth and development of the printing industry and, of course, the electric light afforded a growing middle class with the time to read after dark.

One exceptional work is Moose Call, showing an Indian standing in a canoe, beckoning the animal with a crude horn shell. This work comes from a private collector and is not familiar. In it, the forward bottom of the canoe reflected in the water is stone-cold perfect and equals many of Wyeth’s other river scenes for the quality of the water. That includes the famous In the Crystal Depths, which is also on display. Another new canoe setting picture is the untitled cover illustration for The Popular Magazine dated from 1909, also from a private collection.

The Brandywine Battle exhibit also has work new to this viewer such as the piece by John Vaderlyn, Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine, lent by the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, Okla. This grand history painting shows the lofty context in which Americans placed their revolutionary goals. However, it remains for Andrew Wyeth to steal this show with a work called Pennsylvania Landscape, included in this exhibit because the house associated with a wounded Lafayette is said to be in the background of the painting. In the foreground, however, is a portrait of a tree, a yellow poplar common along the Brandywine River, that is as revealing and insightful as any human portrait.

Despite the determination of the outnumbered American forces under Washington to hold the east bank of the Brandywine, the British army under Sir William Howe crushed the American troops by nightfall and within two weeks, had taken Philadelphia. That winter, the troops would camp at Valley Forge and, slowly, the tide began to turn.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the battle, N.C. Wyeth took his son Andrew to witness a reenactment. He wrote his father, "Not far from the Birmingham Meeting House, in a rolling field and amongst the towering woodlots, between which the distances of the marvelous valley spread out for six or eight miles, the advance of the Redcoats and the retreat of the bedraggled Continentals took place … Well you can imagine Andy’s reaction. The boy is lost today in drawings of cocked hats, guns with bayonets, Hessian miter helmets."