The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, slightly more than an hour’s drive from Princeton, is in the heart of Wyeth country. Three generations of the family of renowned artists — N.C., Andrew, and Jamie — lived and worked near the museum’s historic stone mill building overlooking the eponymous river (when they weren’t summering in Maine), and all three are in the museum’s permanent collection, along with such notables as Horace Pippin, Guy Pene du Bois, Violet Oakley, William Lathrop, John Frederick Peto, and Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses.
Andrew and his wife, Betsy, were even involved in the museum’s founding.
The museum sits on a 15-acre campus with scenic trails, native plants, and outdoor sculpture, and from April to November the house and studio of N.C., a National Historic Landmark, and the studio of Andrew Wyeth are open for tours (reservations required).
Making it worthy of a trip this summer, “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” is on view through September 15. It is billed as Wyeth’s first retrospective in a generation.
Newell Convers Wyeth (1881-1945) was one of the country’s most renowned illustrators. His work appeared in magazines from Harper’s Monthly to Ladies’ Home Journal. The Cream of Wheat Company commissioned his paintings, but perhaps he is most beloved for the illustrations he did for Charles Scribner’s Sons: “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” “The Boy’s King Arthur,” and “The Last of the Mohicans” among them. For other publishers he illustrated “Robin Hood,” “Robinson Crusoe” and “Rip Van Winkle.” He was expert at choosing just the moment of text that would grab the reader.
In the illustration “I said good-bye to Mother and the cove,” 1911, for “Treasure Island,” Wyeth injected an emotional tenor not found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s text. We see a young man leaving the family home with a sack attached to a stick, under a blue sky with a single cloud, as his mother cries into her apron.
In two paintings for “Rip Van Winkle” — among my favorites in the show — we see a wizened wizard-like creature with a long white beard and hair, a cane, and a sack over his shoulder, entering a doorway to a ramshackle abode. He is lit from the autumnal landscape of sycamores behind him.
In the other “Rip Van Winkle” illustration six little gnomes in their pointed caps and beards are bowling, watching the pins explode as the ball hits, and lightening strikes.
It was this painterly romantic realism that publishers wanted, and Wyeth delivered.
N.C. Wyeth came to Chadds Ford as a student of Howard Pyle, another major illustrator of adventure and romance popular in the era. It was the golden age for magazine illustration, and Wyeth was a giant, specializing in American outdoor life — subject matter outside his back door.
Wyeth did well financially: His “Treasure Island” earnings enabled him to purchase 18 acres south of Chadds Ford in the shadows of where the du Ponts had built gunpowder mills and grand chateaux. He built a commodious home and studio 25 steps away from each other. The studio has a Palladian-style window from which the surrounding hills can be enjoyed. The studio is where Andrew, as a frail and sickly child, was homeschooled. Daughters Carolyn and Henriette also studied with their father here, and Carolyn taught in his studio after his death.
According to the tour guide at the N.C. Wyeth home, N.C. was an involved father, playing the piano to awaken his children each morning, cooking them pancakes, and setting up their activities before leaving for his studio. At night he read to them and played classical music on the Victrola. Yet at the same time he tried to keep his grown children close to home, building additional studios for them to stay. All three Wyeth daughters married students of their father.
In 1920 Wyeth purchased another house in the fishing village of Port Clyde, Maine, where the family spent May through October. The family was barely touched by the Great Depression.
Daughter Henriette (1907-1997), a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alumna, moved to New Mexico in 1940 with her husband, Peter Hurd (1904-1984), a one-time student of N.C. It was Hurd who introduced egg tempera painting to the Wyeth family. (Both Henriette and Hurd were featured in an exhibit at the Michener Art Museum last year.)
The studio contains a collection of guns and swords that were used as props, and N.C. was visited by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Pickford.
But Wyeth was torn between his work as an illustrator and his desire to be a fine artist. He wanted to create a painting “with a soul,” according to a video screened in the exhibition, but with five children to support and a life of deadlines for his illustration work, there was little time for anything else.
He studied European artists through books, incorporating some of their style, such as Impressionism. The third floor of the exhibition focuses more on his fine art, much of it painted in Maine. Wyeth’s mother, with whom he was close and confided in hundreds of letters, died in 1925. It had been she who encouraged him as an artist, yet she suffered from depression and was both protective and aloof as a mother. After her death he committed to exploring themes of memory, family, and death while experimenting with modernism, fractured and dreamlike imagery, vivid palettes, and imaginary perspective. Here we can see influences of such American artists as Maurice Prendergast, Rockwell Kent, and Charles Burchfield, as well as Russian and Scandinavian folk art, naive style, and fauve colors.
In a 1929 portrait Wyeth paints his mother in the kitchen of his boyhood home in Needham, Massachusetts, with skewed perspective and indistinct features, suggestive of dream imagery, a kind of visual elegy.
In the text for “Apotheosis of the Family,” a mural, we learn that Wyeth subscribed to theories of eugenics. The mural was commissioned during the Great Depression for a Wilmington bank and depicts family as the “foundation of a nation.” It is an Arcadian vision of a landscape with patchwork hills, trees in all seasons, swirls and cloud, and waterfalls spilling into pools. The adults wear loin cloths, and a mother is nursing her baby while an older boy aims his bow and arrow.
The scene appeals to Americans yearning for a lost agrarian past, a pastoral dream. According to text: “Like millions of other Americans in the teens, twenties, and thirties, [N.C. Wyeth] looked favorably on the movement [of the pseudo-science of eugenics] to preserve the threatened Anglo-Saxon gene pool through ‘race betterment’ — which included an emphasis on health, selective breeding, and strict immigration laws.”
A recent Washington Post headline announced “N.C. Wyeth painted the world full of beauty, resilience, and adventure. And full of white people.” It goes on to call Wyeth one of the great painters of whiteness — it was largely white boys who read, and had their imaginations stoked by, the books he illustrated. And an article in the Harvard Advocate talks about how son Andrew continued the Teutonic fixation, painting only Nordic and German immigrants and their descendants (Helga Testorf, Karl and Anna Kuerner), with “pale, wide brows, golden hair, rosy cheeks, glittering light eyes.”
He does not paint Italian, Mexican, Asian, African, or Jewish immigrants and descendants. “To the artist, these people were ‘truly wholesome’ and ‘fresh, really American.’ To city-dwellers, they were alien, and frightening —foreign, but better suited to the land than they were.”
Wyeth’s life came to a tragic end in 1945. He and his namesake grandson, then 3, were killed when a train hit their Ford station wagon at a railroad crossing a short distance from their home. It remains a mystery as to why the car stayed in that spot, and it has been postulated that the patriarch may have had a heart attack, or that he considered suicide. There is also a story that the grandson was actually his illegitimate child with his daughter-in-law Caroline, married to son Nat (she was a niece of Howard Pyle).
A 1998 biography by David Michaelis, a Princeton University alumnus, suggests that, within his six-foot-one, 300-pound frame, Wyeth was insecure and suffered bouts of depression resulting from his traumatic childhood. And although Michaelis gives an account of the affair with Caroline, he does not subscribe to the theory that they had a child. Michaelis’ source material included the volumes of letters written by N.C., and provided to him by Betsy Wyeth, and includes confirmation by N.C.’s grandson David. Both Andrew and Jamie praised the biography.
Nathaniel also died in an automobile accident in 1954, and Caroline died in a 1973 automobile accident.
According to Wyeth’s bio on the Brandywine website, N.C. “lived long enough to see his children excel in talents he had nurtured — Nathaniel as an inventor; Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew as painters; and Ann as a musician and composer.” And work by all can be seen at the Brandywine.
N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives, Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Through September 15. Open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. $6 to $18. www.brandywine.org.