Art as a Family Affair—The Legacy of the Wyeths

Published with Permission
Written by Pat Knepley
www.TOSMagazine.com

 

No other family has had quite the impact on the twentieth century American art scene as have the Wyeths. N. C. Wyeth (Newell Convers Wyeth) the patriarch, was born in 1882 and studied art and drafting at the Mechanic Arts School in Boston and some other institutions in Massachusetts. In 1902 he traveled to the Philadelphia suburb of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to study with the great Father of Illustration, Howard Pyle. N.C. stayed in Chadds Ford for the remainder of his life, dividing his time between his home there and a vacation home in Maine.

N.C., who was called Convers by friends, followed in his teacher’s footsteps to become one of our country’s greatest illustrators. Illustrators are those who create art for publication, such as for books, magazines, or in advertising. Illustrators are hired for a very specific project, called a commission, and one of N.C. Wyeth’s first commissions was to create a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, which in 1903 a very popular magazine.

N.C. Wyeth is probably best known for his amazing illustrations for classic children’s literature. His most important commission came in 1911 from Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house, to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. After the enormous popularity of this first book, N.C. enjoyed a long career illustrating classics for Scribner’s as well as other publishers. To see some illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, visit this website. [http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/wyeth.htm]  

The intense realism and superb technical skill in these illustrations were matched by N.C. Wyeth’s creativity. Rather than opt to illustrate a scene that was described in detail by the author in the story, Wyeth often chose an obscure line as his inspiration and then used his own imagination to make the story come alive. N.C. Wyeth illustrated the adventures of knights and kings, as well as great cowboy westerns. To that end, he spent some time out West, even working as a ranch hand1 to immerse himself in the sights, sounds, and feel of the world he wished to illustrate. In addition to book illustrations, N.C. continued to illustrate advertisements, many magazine covers, and even the U.S. military publications. He felt torn between the demands of commercial art to support his growing family and his desire to just make art for art’s sake. N.C. Wyeth had a wife and five children and was dedicated to his family, tutoring each one of his children at home for much of their schooling.

Andrew Wyeth is the beloved realist painter from the mid-twentieth century, known for such works as Christina’s World, Groundhog Day, and other idyllic settings of everyday objects and scenes. Andrew Wyeth was N.C.’s younger son and the youngest of the five children. Though all of N.C.’s children became talented artists under their father’s guidance, Andrew is the best known and most famous. Andrew was born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, but he spent many a summer in Maine with his family. At a very young age Andrew starting doing watercolors of the rocky Maine coast and the interesting sea-faring life that abounded there. He had his first one-man exhibit at the age of 20.

Though his watercolors showed a certain skill, it was his tempera paintings that distinguished Andrew from his siblings. Once Andrew discovered the centuries-old medium of egg tempera, he stayed in that medium for most of his career, creating some iconic images with an astounding level of detail and austere realism that stood out from the prevailing trends of bold abstraction in art in the middle of the twentieth century.

Andrew Wyeth most often utilized a limited palette of earth tones, and this is often thought to be a reflection of his formative years during the Depression and World War II. He learned from his famous illustrator father to immerse himself in details and really live with a subject for a while before trying to capture the essence on a canvas. Andrew would take everyday objects, such as a milking pail or a raincoat on a wall hook, and imbue them with deeper meaning. Whereas father N.C. was trying to tell a story in his art, son Andrew was trying to convey a feeling.

Christina’s World depicts a scene in which Wyeth’s then neighbor, Christina Olsen, who suffered from an unknown illness that left her unable to use her legs, is lying on a hillside looking up to her farmhouse in the distance. This touching 1948 painting currently hangs in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and is the most well-known artwork of Andrew Wyeth’s career. Painted three years after father N.C.’s tragic death in a train accident, some say it is a representation of Andrew’s grief.2 To see some artwork by the legendary Andrew Wyeth, visit this website. [http://www.andrewwyeth.com/images.html]

Andrew Wyeth lived to be 91 and painted into his later years. In addition to a prolific body of work, he also left behind a wife and two sons. His youngest son, Jamie, became a famous painter as well and was greatly influenced by his grandfather’s illustrations. Though in public school for six years, Jamie spent the remainder of his education being tutored at home with an emphasis on art instruction, which was provided at first by his Aunt Carolyn and then later by his father. He spent eight hours a day studying, sketching, and painting and showed natural talent like his father and grandfather.3 While his father Andrew preferred still-life subjects and dreamy landscapes, Jamie preferred portraiture and painting animals and livestock.

One of Jamie’s most famous oil paintings is Portrait of Pig, painted early in his career, a reflection of his surroundings while he was growing up on the Wyeth farm. True to what he learned at his father’s knee, Jamie Wyeth immersed himself in details and proved his powers of careful observation. However, there is a whimsy to Jamie’s paintings that is in stark contrast to the somber nature of his father Andrew’s work.4

An important later commission for Jamie was to paint a posthumous portrait of President John F. Kennedy. Jamie studied photographs and film of the President and then spent time sketching his brothers, Ted Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, in order to learn the subtle mannerisms of the President when he was alive. The resulting portrait later became a sought-after postage stamp in 1971.5

Like his father and grandfather before him, Jamie makes his home in Chadds Ford, surrounded by the Pennsylvania farmlands he loved and immortalized in his paintings. He continues an amazing legacy of one family’s prodigious talent and enduring influence on American art.

All of the Wyeths spent a considerable amount of time drawing as young artists, and even after they were well established as artists, they would sketch their subjects before they would paint. To learn the basics of drawing, a key part of any artist’s training, check out the See The Light Art Class series on DVD featuring this column’s author, Pat Knepley, as Master Artist.6 If you are ever in the Philadelphia area, plan a visit to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to see the paintings of three generations of Wyeths, in addition to celebrated illustrator Howard Pyle. Check out www.brandywinemuseum.org.

Endnotes:

1. www.andrew-wyeth-prints.com/nc-wyeth.html

2. www.arthistory.about.com/od/famous_paintings/ss/andrew_wyeth_christinas_world.htm  

3. www.jamiewyeth.com/biography.html

4. A great website where you can explore the work of Jaimie Wyeth can be found here. [http://awyethgallery.com/jamie/index.html]

5. www.jamiewyeth.com/biography.html

6. This nine-disc DVD set provides thirty-six lessons of basic drawing instruction for young artists aged 6–12. Each skill-building lesson is presented from a Biblical worldview. www.seethelightshine.com

 

Pat has been drawing and painting since she was able to hold a crayon. She has a degree in art education, a teaching credential, and is an experienced teacher. In addition to being the master artist for the See the Light ART CLASS DVD series, Pat serves as Director of Children’s Ministries at a large church where she is blessed to be able to blend her passions for art, teaching, and reaching kids with God’s Word. Pat lives in Southern California with her husband and two teen boys. See the Light’s ART CLASS lessons are available on DVD, and our See The Light website is a great resource for young artists (www.seethelightshine.com).

Copyright 2012, used with permission.  All rights reserved by author.  Originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.  Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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