AND NOW FOR A LITTLE HERRING ART
N.C. Wyeth’s Deeper Aspirations
The great illustrator N.C. Wyeth was also a fine artist touched by modernism
July 27, 2016 6:18 p.m. ET
I can’t remember the last time I heard a screenwriter, a mystery novelist or a show-tune composer express regret for having embraced so “lowly” a calling. Nowadays, popular artists know that what they do is valuable in its own right. It hardly seems possible that when Aaron Copland went to Hollywood in 1939 to score Lewis Milestone’s film version of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” many of his fellow highbrows were sure that he was finished as a classical composer. Today, they’d ask him for a letter of recommendation.
I thought of Copland’s film scores when I went to see “N.C. Wyeth: Painter,” an exhibition on display through Dec. 31 at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. Wyeth, who died in 1945, was the father of Andrew Wyeth,perhaps the most famous and beloved American painter of the 20th century. In his lifetime, though, N.C. was equally famous—though not as a maker of what we stubbornly continue to call “fine art.” He was, rather, the most highly paid commercial illustrator of his day. While Wyeth is now mainly known for having illustrated such children’s classics as “Robinson Crusoe,” “Treasure Island” and “The Yearling,” his work also appeared on the covers of mass-circulation magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, and in ads for Cream of Wheat and Lucky Strike cigarettes. In those days, the mass reproduction of photographs was an imperfect science. An artist who knew how to make bold, appealing illustrations was always in demand, and nobody did it better than Wyeth. When he painted a cowboy on a bronco, you could hear the spurs jingling.
But Wyeth believed that he was squandering his great gifts. Unable to regard illustration as anything more than “the art of journalism, to be rendered in the of painting,” he dreamed of being praised as “a who has shaken the dust of the illustrator from his heels!!” So he spent his spare time working on landscapes, portraits and studies of life in coastal Maine, where he spent his summers. He saw these paintings, which bear such homely titles as “The Harbor Herring Gut” and “Fisherman’s Family,” as “the beginning of more important self-expression,” and they were intended not for magazines but galleries—and, eventually, museums. By the end of his life, he had accumulated several hundred of them, and 15, mostly dating from the late ’20s and ’30s, are on view at the Farnsworth.
Art critics and historians haven’t had much to say about Wyeth’s “serious” work. David Michaelis, author of “N.C. Wyeth,” an excellent 1998 biography which argues that his illustrations deserve to be taken very seriously indeed—a point of view now generally accepted by scholars—wrote off Wyeth’s “independent” paintings in a single curt sentence: “He deliberately intended these paintings to be taken as statements of his most personal feelings, yet he left out or deflated the very pictorial elements that made his canvases most his own.”
To visit the Farnsworth, however, is to realize that Mr. Michaelis got it almost exactly wrong. These burgeoningly vital, at times near-primitive paintings, whose bold swashes of magenta and turquoise recall the Fauvism ofAndré Derain and Henri Matisse, make Andrew look prim. Even more to the point, they appear to have been strongly influenced by such early American modern painters as Marsden Hartleyand Maurice Prendergast, whose names go unmentioned in Mr. Michaelis’s book. It amazed me to learn that an artist best remembered for his nostalgic magazine covers seems to have known so much about the art of his time—and was eager to incorporate it into his own work. It’s as if Norman Rockwell had decided to take up color-field painting in his old age.
The more I think about Wyeth, the more I find myself thinking not only of Copland, but of Bert Lahr’s celebrated performance as Estragon in the 1956 Broadway premiere ofSamuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the most influential avant-garde play of the 20th century. Who knew that the Cowardly Lion of “The Wizard of Oz” had such immortal longings in him—or that the well-paid illustrator who painted steaming bowls of Cream of Wheat was also capable of turning out excitingly modern canvases?
I hope that an expanded version of this show will travel to other museums, not least because it offers so timely a reminder of the value of artistic ambition. Yes, N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations are marvelous in their own right. I wish he’d known how good they were. But he was old-fashioned enough to believe that he had an obligation to aim higher, and because he did, we have “The Harbor Herring Gut.” Like Bert Lahr, he thought there was more in him than mere popularity—and he was right.