The stirring, 'earthly likeness of mankind'

Despite a lifetime of unparalleled success, N.C. Wyeth couldn't shakehis disappointment in his illustrations

N.C. WYETH By David Michaelis Alfred A. Knopf 560 pp., $40

If i could only paint what I can feel,' Newell Convers Wyeth lamented over and over. In 1932, his oldest daughter, Henriette, reported: "Papa is most horribly down two-thirds of the time.... The old, old story of having to do a certain amount of work that pays."

Even though his name "was stamped on the spines of a long shelf of literature," the acclaimed dean of American illustrators felt his 40 years of picturemaking was insufficient.

Part of the reason for that sense of inadequacy, David Michaelis suggests in "N.C. Wyeth," his carefully proportioned portrait, is that the artist-illustrator did not want to think that his future reputation depended upon his narrative painting.

He could have shaken "the dust of the illustrator" from his shoes and emerged into the art world as a "real" painter if not for what he described as his "accursed success in skin-deep pictures and illustrations."

But Michaelis points out that those qualities that made Wyeth supreme as an illustrator are just those qualities that distinguish him as a "real" painter.

Beginning with his narrative paintings for "Treasure Island" (1911) through those in "The Yearling" (1939), in masterpiece after masterpiece, Wyeth's great leap forward in the technique of illustrating placed the viewer at the center of action.

In "Treasure Island," for example, painting from Jim's "sight seen," Wyeth conceived the novel so that the reader is Jim. Only six of Wyeth's 17 paintings tell us what Jim is doing; the rest show us what Jim is seeing. They endow us with Jim's senses and emotions. As Wyeth intended, the reader "sees, hears, tastes, or smells nothing but what [Jim] did."

Wyeth's second contribution to narrative painting was to bring contemporaneity to illustration. Before Wyeth, Michaelis writes, "book illustrators had always put the people and landscapes of literature into illustrations; N.C. Wyeth painted the people and landscapes of life - his own life - into books."

He summed up his breakthrough in a letter to Frank Schoonover: "Whatever isn't contemporary in a picture is dead." It was, Michaelis says, "a discovery that would sustain his career."

In an article from the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Wyeth amplified this "breakthrough": "In my own life I try to live the life that I depict. Some may wonder how I can live the life of the 12th century, which most of my costumed romance represents.

"All I can say is that the elemental feelings of long ago are identical with our own. The costumes and accessories of the 12th century may be different, but the sunlight on a bronzed face, the winds that blow across the marshlands, the moon illuminating the old hamlets of medieval England, the rain-soaked travelers of King Arthur's day passing across the moors are strictly contemporaneous in feeling. The farmer swinging a scythe uses the same muscles, experiences the same sensations as we do today. But you've got to do these things to understand them."

Ultimately, Michaelis sees Wyeth's story as the tragedy of a painter who, in spite of commercial success, believed himself to be a failure as an artist. Basing his study on more than 10,000 items preserved in the Wyeth family archive in Chadds Ford, Pa., Michaelis traces at least part of Wyeth's feelings of insufficiency to his childhood experiences, particularly his mother's instability and his father's isolation from the family.

In 1940, N.C. Wyeth was elected to the National Academy of Design, the oldest art institution in the United States governed and controlled by artists. Candidates for election had to submit a self-portrait to a jury of academicians; a two-thirds vote was required for election. When Wyeth's self-portrait was placed on the easel, the academicians broke into spontaneous applause, the only applause given to any canvas during that year's election. Wyeth was elected a National Academician by a vote of 126 to 4.

Two years later, however, in the turmoil of World War II, Wyeth dismissed his illustrations as "naive, sentimental." Increasingly dissatisfied with his work as a narrative painter, he wrote, "These times banish the dream, and the pageant of my painted pictures dissolves into the misty nebular from which they came."

Following Wyeth's death in 1945, the magnitude of his work still appeared ambiguous if not misunderstood. The Evening Star in Washington wrote: "Thousands of people admired his achievements without comprehending why they were good. On the other hand, he was a painter's painter, an illustrator's illustrator."

The words written by Paul Horgan in a foreword to "N.C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations, and Murals" (1972) provide a more fitting valediction: "As an illustrator, he was head and shoulders above his contemporaries. As 'pure' painter, he left a rich legacy of works which celebrate his own image of his country. When we see it as he saw it, we will see him more truly.... He will be rediscovered in terms which were for the most part denied him during his lifetime. Until then, his country inherits his beautiful tributes to the earthly likeness of mankind as he knew it."

Robert C. Jones is editor of Mid-America Press in Warrensburg, Mo.

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