N.C. Wyeth

On View Now
October 4, 2019 to January 12, 2020

N.C. Wyeth

New Perspectives

N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Island Funeral, 1939, Tempera and oil on hardboard panel, Gift of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art, 2017

A long overdue reassessment of a complex and brilliant artist.

If you’ve lived in Maine for any amount of time, chances are you’re aware of the name “N. C. Wyeth” as somewhat akin to Mount Katahdin—a regional landmark that is unassailable, ageless, and intrinsically intertwined with the area since a time dating back before many current state residents were born. Those with even a passing knowledge of American art immediately recognize the name as an avatar for a particular mode of nostalgia-steeped illustration. But what do we really know about N. C. Wyeth, the artist and the man?

Countless people across the globe can close their eyes and conjure Wyeth’s work—his vibrant use of color, his striking figures, his storyteller’s sense of visual narrative. Many are aware of his onetime standing as the country’s foremost illustrator, his deep ties to the places he lived—particularly Brandywine River Valley in Pennsylvania, and midcoast Maine—and his stature as patriarch to three generations of acclaimed artists, including his son Andrew and grandson Jamie. Very few, however, can describe his life beyond these brief biographical touchstones.

New Perspectives aims to broaden our understanding of Wyeth and American art. Curated by the PMA’s Jessica May and Christine B. Podmaniczky of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives brings together more than 45 works in a variety of media. Coupled with a robust exhibition catalogue, it describes a man who adored his parents and was deeply affected by their loss, who simultaneously suffered immensely and drew inspiration from homesickness, who had a complex and often difficult relationship with his mentor, the famed painter and educator Howard Pyle, and who battled self-doubt, all while possessing incredible devotion to his loved ones and a deep passion for his artistic practice.

He is also someone who, like countless artists before and since, struggled to reconcile the necessity of commercial pursuits with his own artistic aspirations—a balance that was complicated by the fact that he was highly successful and widely beloved as an illustrator, while struggling to attract similar attention to his work in other media. In 1920, he and his artist friend Sidney M. Chase co-purchased a home in Port Clyde, Maine, and spent the next decade renovating it. Wyeth eventually bought Chase’s share, and named the house “Eight Bells” in homage to Winslow Homer. In a letter to Chase, Wyeth wrote, “How I teem to paint that wonderful water and shore next summer!” His time in Maine would come to be vitally important to his legacy as an artist, as well as to subsequent generations of the Wyeth family.

New Perspectives presents N. C.’s iconic illustrations alongside landscapes that depict his home and communities, examining his full practice for the first time. The resulting overview repositions him in the broad context of early-20th-century American art, offering newcomers, lifelong admirers, and scholars alike a more profound appreciation of his life and work.

The exhibition also places him in the full context of his time. Newell Convers Wyeth was born in 1882, and his life and career spanned America’s transformation from a rural, agrarian society reconciling post-Civil War reconstruction to an urban, industrial one hurtling toward the atomic age. Indeed, the six decades of Wyeth’s life coincided with one of the most rapidly changing times in human history. Through it all, the artist remained inspired by traditional modes of artmaking, returning to nostalgia-tinged depictions of white American culture even as trends in the art world bent increasingly towards Modernism.

Although that was the world he found himself in late in life, he first received artistic training in an entirely different era of American art history. Influenced heavily by artists such as Frederic Remington—whose work, in part, inspired him to take Western excursions early in his career to try his hand at painting depictions of the American frontier—Winslow Homer, and his personal mentor Pyle, Wyeth grew to become a highly in-demand illustrator, contributing definitive imagery to novels such as Treasure Island, his breakout hit, and The Last of the Mohicans. The PMA is fortunate to present four paintings from Treasure Island in this exhibition, accompanied by fascinating insights into how Wyeth imbued these narrative works with his personal emotions as well as subtext about the modernizing world.

In a sense, N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives presents Wyeth to 21st-century audiences for the first time, even if you’ve known of his work all your life. Perhaps few of us know who N. C. Wyeth really was, but once you get to know him, you’ll have a much deeper and more profound appreciation for his work.

Top image:  N.C. Wyeth (United States, 1882 - 1945) Captain Nemo (detail), 1911, oil on canvas, 40 3/16 x 30 1/8 inches. The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection.

N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives is co-organized by the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, and the Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts 

Generously supported by  Charles C. Butt, and Thomas A. and Nouchine Connolly.

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