Many fans of N.C. Wyeth consider his paintings that became famous novel illustrations his best work. And it is true that when one considers Wyeth, the mind’s eye produces a vision of Lancelot and Old Pew, Indians and pirates, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
To see and marvel at what Wyeth considered the best Wyeths, one needs only take a look at the influence of the Maine seacoast, dramatically displayed at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford.
"Summers in Maine: Paintings by N.C. Wyeth" represents the museum’s first exhibition devoted solely to Maine subjects and runs through Sept. 1. For the duration of the show, visitors can enjoy a surprise — Wyeth’s well-known mural, The Giant. This work is on loan from the Westtown School while the facility undergoes renovations.
The Giant was commissioned by the Westtown class of 1910 as a gift for the school in memory of a classmate, William Engle. The mural has hung in the school’s dining hall since 1923. It depicts a figure of a giant high in the sky and six children on a beach watching him. Five of the youngsters were based on Wyeth’s own children and the sixth, on the far left, represents Engle.
With the Maine paintings, Wyeth felt he achieved the ultimate in his art. He had continually sought out landscapes to paint a "big picture," as he was always somewhat concerned about his reputation resting on "illustration," a term he considered negative. In Maine, he found the escape from the pressures of meeting publishers’ deadlines and the inspiration from the landscape to create what he considered to be among his finest work. The paintings reveal that instead of depiction of action, Wyeth was more interested in light and color and even dabbled a bit with modernist conventions.
Wyeth took his family from Chadds Ford to Maine for more than 25 years. He had discovered Port Clyde in 1910 on a painting trip with Sidney Chase, a classmate from Howard Pyle’s famous classes in Wilmington and in Chadds Ford. In 1920 Wyeth bought a rundown house called the Captain Norris Seavy House that faced the harbor. As it was renovated, he and his family stayed in town. By 1930, the family was established and renamed the house "Eight Bells" after a painting by Winslow Homer.
According to the museum notes, "For a quarter of a century, Port Clyde and environs, the numerous islands off the coast and the gritty edge-of-life existence of local fishermen provided the artist with stimuli that invigorated his work and fostered his artistic development." That this experiment succeeded is evidenced by the strong showing at the Brandywine.
Some of Wyeth’s best-known paintings, including The Doryman, loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Island Funeral, from the collection of the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Del.; The Hupper Farm and The Road to the Jones House, from the Dallas Museum of Art; and Sun Glint, from the New Britain Museum of Art, are part of this exhibition.
In 1939, when Wyeth was offered his first solo gallery show in New York, he and his dealer, Robert Macbeth, chose 12 paintings, 11 of which were from the Maine sojourn. Wyeth’s son-in-law, Peter Hurd, himself a noted artist, described the work in an essay that accompanied the show. He wrote the work is "… the product of revolt against the inevitable limitations of the art of illustration. The artist’s spiritual maturation demanded a freer and more personal expression. Wyeth compels us to stop and ponder with him the surrounding vision of form and colour, of radiance and shadow."
Here also, one can see the major influences in Wyeth’s work. Noteworthy are Homer, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, contemporary photography, folk artists and the growing school of American Regionalists. Most striking, however, is that Wyeth’s skills as an illustrator infuse the paintings with great drama, at the same time allowing him a deeply personal interpretation of what was before him.
Much of the work on these paintings was begun in Maine with sketches and preliminary drafts and then finished back in Chadds Ford. The Maine artistic tradition and experience has held true for most of the Wyeth painting family. Andrew, N.C.’s son, and Jamie, his grandson, still make annual summer trips to family cottages on the rocky coast.
Summers in Maine:
Paintings by N.C. Wyeth
Brandywine River Museum
Routes 1 and 100, Chadds Ford
Through Sept. 1
Museum admission: $5 adults, $2.50 seniors and students, free for children under 6