Like so many illustrators of his day, N. C. Wyeth spent his life in pursuit of a golden age, nobler and more beautiful than the age in which he was born. But, in a sense, he and they embodied a golden age of their own: never before and never again would their often-disprized corner of visual art—the illustrating of children’s classics—possess as bright an aura of cultural consequence as it enjoyed in the early years of the twentieth century. Alongside Wyeth, Edmond Dulac, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, W. W. Denslow, and Maxfield Parrish belong to that era encompassing the decades on either side of the Great War, and generations of British and American children were raised on a steady diet of their enchantments. Although the author of this article was born half a century after those glory days, he is old enough to have, as a child, found in the crannies of his parents’ apartment the worn and torn Scribner’s editions of Wyeth’s Treasure Island and Parrish’s Arabian Nights, whose illustrations preserve a special, indelible presence in his visual memory. Such seems to be the unique privilege of children’s books. It is hard to imagine anything in the experience of the latest generation that will take the place of what was once such a fixture, perhaps even a birthright, of childhood in the West.
Newell Convers Wyeth—the subject of a retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—was born into an age when, even as many “serious” artists wallowed in their customary indigence, an illustrator could prosper. His wonderful Self-Portrait in Top Hat and Cape from about 1927 reveals a wryly amused entrepreneur mightily pleased with his place in the world. Indeed, no sooner had Wyeth, not yet thirty years old, accepted a commission from Scribner’s in 1911 to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island than he bought eighteen acres of land in the Brandywine River valley, near the site of the present exhibition. There he built a grand if ruggedly Spartan home that still stands as part of the museum and that served for generations as the center of the Wyeth clan. Though Wyeth came from Needham, Massachusetts, he spent much of his life in Pennsylvania, as would his illustrious progeny. So closely did he identify with the northeast—despite some early years out West depicting cowboys, cattle rustlers, and Native Americans—that he seems to have taken pride in never leaving the United States and thus never visiting Europe.
Though he yearned to be seen as an artist rather than merely as an illustrator, Wyeth’s work bore the hallmarks of that less exalted calling, with its unchallenging charm and instant legibility. But what does it mean to say that he was an illustrator? Surely the illustrating of texts had been a prominent part of visual art from the time of vase painters in ancient Greece to that of the Limbourg Brothers in the court of fifteenth-century Burgundy and their Persian contemporaries. Literally hundreds of Old Master painters—Guercino and Poussin among them—had depicted scenes from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, and such impressionists as Manet eagerly illustrated Poe. And yet, the strain of creativity that Wyeth represented in the seventy-one paintings, drawings and watercolors on view in the Brandywine exhibition was something different, standing at the heart of popular culture but at a remove from the mainstream of visual culture.
If its earliest antecedents can be found in William Hogarth, its more direct and relevant forebears are the likes of George Cruikshank and Sir John Tenniel, the illustrators of Dickens and Lewis Carroll respectively, as well Gustave Doré, their French contemporary, who illustrated everything from the Bible to Rabelais. These men emerged in consequence of new printing techniques that disseminated literature more cheaply and in greater abundance than ever before. But in general illustrators would have to wait until the early twentieth century to become cultural superstars in their own right, when the vectors of their fame and the sources of their wealth would be such midcult magazines as Collier’s and Scribner’s Magazine, as well as publishing houses like Scribner and Co., for which Wyeth illustrated as many as ten texts between 1921 and 1939.
Unlike their forebears, Wyeth and his contemporaries tried to escape the dreariness of modernity by turning to subjects that were consolingly distant both geographically and temporally. But each of them sought a deeply personal paradise, to be presented to a receptive public as an avenue of its own escapism. Dulac, inspired by Beardsley and eighteenth-century French illustrators, offered up an aristocratic refinement of sentiment and line that looked back to the ancien régime. While Pyle returned us to the days of chivalry, Rackham rooted about in a rough fairyland of ancestral wizards and gnomes.
Wyeth’s particular brand of escapism, however, is more in the realist strain. He is less interested in enchantment than in force as an instrument of liberation. As such he is drawn to scenes of virility and violence, of struggle and fortitude. Typical of this mood are the endpapers for his early Scribner edition of Treasure Island, in which a rough-looking band of desperados, wielding sabers and pickaxes, advance from the right side of the book to the left, over grey sands, silhouetted against a shrill yellow sky populated by seagulls. This is the same mood that dominates In Penobscot Bay (The Doryman) from 1944, toward the end of Wyeth’s career, in which he depicts a solitary rower—here, as almost always in his work, a man—straining against the unruliness of the waves. In The Wreck of the “Covenant,” another solitary figure on a wind-swept sea clings for dear life to a spar from his ship, a two-masted brig in the distance, shattered by a reef and sinking. With only the rarest exceptions, the figures that inhabit Wyeth’s illustrations, whether Robinson Crusoe on his deserted beach or the last of the Mohicans in their makeshift canoe, are essentially faceless, their bodies, attired in period costume, conveying all that one needs to know about who they are.
And yet, each of these images possesses what Roland Barthes, a vastly different cultural figure, would call, many years later, the punctum: a deeply affecting aspect or element. Looking at an old photograph of a near-eastern house, Barthes writes: C’est la que je voudrais vivre—I’d like to live there! Whether in Wyeth’s early illustrations for Treasure Island or in such late regionalist-inspired paintings as the autobiographical In a Dream I Meet General Washington, whether in his sunlit, Maxfield Parrish–inspired mural of The Phoenician Biremes, commissioned by the First National Bank of Boston, or his Soldiers of the Soil from nearly twenty years later, intended to promote the war effort, the receptive viewer is apt to feel a desire to dive into a world more beautiful than any we have ever known, one that Wyeth has invented for our consumption and, one suspects, for his own.
It is easy to mock such artifice as Wyeth and his fellow illustrators of the early twentieth century made the basis of their livelihoods: it was created, once upon a time, for children and adults who were not exactly committed to visual art or to culture in general. Indeed, one suspects that few children today could view such work with the innocent delight of their predecessors: even for them it is not edgy enough! But if one succeeds in viewing these paintings with fresh eyes, their enchantment, as uncomplicated as it is now unfashionable, quickly begins to reassert itself against all the odds, and it is indestructible.
N. C. Wyeth: A Personal Perspective is on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, until September 8, and will travel to the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, where it will be on view from October 2 to January 12, 2020, and the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio, where it will be on view from February 8, 2020, to May 3, 2020.