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The dark side of illustrator N.C. Wyeth

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February 15th, 2018
This N.C. Wyeth illustration was the endpaper for a volume of Last of the Mohicans.

This N.C. Wyeth illustration was the endpaper for a volume of Last of the Mohicans

 

N.C. Wyeth is, next to Norman Rockwell, probably one of the best-known illustrators of the twentieth century. By name alone, people associate him with quintessentially American art—paintings depicting the wide-open Western frontier, peaceful small-town life, and memorable depictions of literary classics like Treasure Island

But there was a dark side to the man behind the art. 

Born Newell Convers Wyeth in 1882 in Needham, Mass., N.C., as friends and family called him, was in most ways the typical boy. He loved the outdoors: hiking, hunting, and fishing; reading dime novels and swashbuckling adventure stories. 

He had a strong interest in literature and an artistic eye for recreating scenes from his favorite books. At just 12, he was capable of producing realistic drawings and paintings thanks to his keen powers of observation.

As N.C. once remarked, “When I paint a figure on horseback, a man plowing, or a woman buffeted by the wind, I have an acute sense of the muscle strain.”

After terms at several art academies—including Massachusetts Normal Art School and the Eric Pape School of Art, where he studied illustration under the American impressionist George Loftus Noyes—Wyeth moved to Wilmington, Del., to work with renowned illustrator Howard Pyle. 

Early influence

Pyle was the perfect teacher for an artist like Wyeth. As an instructor, he stressed realism in every respect.

He encouraged his students to pursue historical subjects, to visit the places where they occurred, and to always observe the human form down to the minutest of details. Wyeth quickly blossomed and, by 1903, he was a professional illustrator.

That same year, he landed his first big contract, painting a bucking bronco for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. He was 20 years old.

The following year, The Post again hired him to illustrate a Western story. At Pyle’s suggestion, Wyeth went west to study his subject, working as a cowboy in Colorado and visiting the Navajo Indians in Arizona.

After completing the job, he returned to his base of operation in Chadds Ford, Pa., and painted farm scenes for Scribner’s, establishing himself as a versatile artist who could cover anything from the Wild West to East Coast rural settings. 

Well on the road to wealth and fame, in 1911, Wyeth divided his time between magazines and books. Over the next three decades, he painted some of the best literary illustrations ever published.

He provided the artwork for seminal volumes such as Treasure Island (1911), Kidnapped (1913), Robin Hood (1917), The Last of the Mohicans (1919), Robinson Crusoe (1920), and The Yearling (1939). Indeed, he had become part of the literary establishment, hosting friends and visitors like F. Scott Fitzgerald at his small farm in Chadds Ford.

The illustrations he created attested to his thorough understanding of the stories themselves. The final paintings were lifelike, detailed, and dramatic. 

One might dare say that his renditions were precisely what the author had in mind when he wrote the book.

By the late 1920s, Wyeth was working at his leisure. His literary artwork commanded impressive commissions and, later, brought royalties to boot. 

He was wealthy and, outwardly, content. But in the midst of his fame and fortune, the artist was living a tortured existence.

Battling demons

According to his biographer David Michaelis, Wyeth suffered from deep depression, which Michaelis asserts stemmed from his overbearing mother Henrietta.

To be sure, Henrietta had her own serious mental problems. At the age of eight, she supposedly “lost control” of her baby brother’s buggy, resulting in his drowning death.

To this day, some don’t believe it was an accident.

As an adult and parent to N.C., she was inclined to manic episodes, violent mood swings, and extended periods of depression. One day, she would smother her son with love and, the next, freeze him out with silence, speaking only to criticize or belittle him.

Henrietta attempted suicide at least once. Understandably, this left the youngster confused, frustrated, and riddled with self-doubt. 

Even on his own with a wife, children, and a thriving career, Wyeth seemed unable to cultivate a healthy, positive sense of self. And that’s why the circumstances surrounding his untimely death are still controversial.

In October 1945, the illustrator got into his car with his 3-year-old grandson, who the family also called N.C. Wyeth frequently brought the boy along with him on his routine errand runs throughout Chadds Ford. 

This time, though, his car stopped on the railroad tracks near his farm.

No one knows what happened. Was it a heart attack? Did the vehicle stall?

Or was it a deliberate response to his lifelong depression? Whatever the reason, the car didn’t move and neither N.C. nor his grandson got out as an approaching train bore down on them.

Both died instantly.

The irony is in the contrast between Wyeth’s life and his artwork. Plagued by sadness and insecurity, he painted pictures of peaceful small towns, wholesome living, and self-confident adventure heroes. 

A brilliant artist, N.C. Wyeth likely painted what he badly wanted but never had.

Further reading: Michaelis, David, N.C. Wyeth: A Biography (Harper Perennial, 2003).

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