Tuesday, December 07, 2010


N.C Wyeth's self-portrait

In November almost the only reading I did was a total immersion into the massive collection The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, edited by Betsy James Wyeth (Gambit 1971). At over eight hundred pages, it contains hundreds of letters in chronological order from the time he left home as a teenager, to study painting with Howard Pyle, to just before his death. The collection is everything I had hoped for, namely, a fully-realized self-portrait. Just what I wanted to know, after revisiting some of his transcendent paintings at the local Wyeth repository again this fall. Not only are the letters a near-complete record of his painterly education and deep concerns in art and life, but in them N.C. also repeatedly acknowledges his personal heroes:

"I have nourished a thought or have experienced a sensation. I want to convey it to you. I must do it by hook or by crook. Stevenson did it with enchanting rhythm, perfect euphony, gliding sentences; Whitman fired great chaotic chunks! great gobs of thought - fairly hurled his ideas in heavy masses, so that your brain reels with the power of his meanings. And along comes Thoreau, the master of them all..." (p.486)

He idolizes Thoreau. Calls Robert Frost's book North of Boston "...my greatest discovery since Thoreau, in the realm of wonderful expression." (p.538) And discovers via Emily Dickinson something he hadn't quite believed before, that a woman is capable of creating fine art based on her own experience:

"Creative work of such magnificent stature is infinitely more than a means, or vehicle, of temporary escape, but rather becomes luminous radiation which makes a course to steer by. It has been a growing revelation to me to gradually awaken to the dynamic power of this frail girl's art.... This woman's creation is pure gold. (p.823)

Anyone who has pigeonholed N.C. Wyeth as an illustrator, albeit one of the most famous of the twentieth century, should read these letters to see how much he struggled with that path in life. He desperately wanted to be a painter of things of his own choosing, particularly of the transcendent nature of the American scene. And instead, he was bound to Scribner's for decades, and fit his own work in around the edges. It's heartbreaking, and I must quote his own description of Thoreau's Familiar Letters, so closely does this passage describe how I feel about his own letters:

"The letters are full of genuine pathos, not because they are pathetic, but because they are so tender, and so sincere." (p.339)

N.C. Wyeth's are that and much more. Unselfconscious, passionate, full of romantic fervor for the divine in nature and for the making of art. I don't know if I've ever read a more complete first-person record of one artist's internal life, charted over an entire lifetime. (Van Gogh's Letters, perhaps?) Riveting. I could only put it down long enough to take notes, and then, just barely. The end is particularly poignant. As World War II rages, N.C. Wyeth rails against it and prays for more time to do what he considers his real work. But we, the readers, know what lies ahead for him, on the train tracks near his home at Chadds Ford. We know he has run out of time. What a masterful self-portrait. In truth, larger than life.

This is a wonderful and insightful review. Not only have you honored Wyeth, you have honored your self. Excellent writing. Thank you.
Thank you kindly, Lincoln. Nicest thing anyone's said to me all day.

The book is truly terrific. Now I'm reading a book of letters between Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz. Also vivid and searching, but only covering a span of a few years. Part of the impact of the N.C. Wyeth book is its sheer scope, reflecting the work of a lifetime.

Betsy Wyeth, now. Oh, how I wish *she* would write an autobiography! She wrote a damn fine introduction to the N.C. Wyeth letters. I wanted it to be much longer than it was. Downright tantalizing, I tell you.
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