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N.C. Wyeth Arrives in Wilmington


One hundred years ago, on October 24, 1902, twenty-year-old Newell Convers Wyeth stepped off a train in Wilmington, Delaware, hoping to join the Howard Pyle School of Art and become an illustrator. N.C. Wyeth Arrives in Wilmington, an exhibition opening on September 7, 2002 and continuing through November 24, 2002 at the Brandywine River Museum, celebrates the beginning of his now legendary career that spanned five decades and left a legacy of popular images that continue to fascinate generations of readers and museum visitors. The exhibition highlights the combination of commercial and social issues and technological innovations that made the very early years of the 20th century a fortuitous time for a young man of Wyeth's particular talent to enter the field of illustration.

Between 1885 and 1905, approximately 7,500 different periodical titles were published. Many failed and others merged with competitors, but in 1900 about 5,500 periodicals were on the market. "Magazines, magazines, magazines," warned an editorial comment in National Magazine in November, 1897, "the news-stands are already groaning under the heavy load, and there are still more coming." This phenomenal rise in publications was due to many factors. A better-educated middle class experienced increasing prosperity and had more leisure time and more disposable income than an earlier generation or two had enjoyed. This growing segment of society turned to weekly and monthly periodicals as a major source of information and entertainment. One hundred years ago, magazines provided what television, movies and the Internet do today.  (left: N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), The Hunter, ca. 1906, oil on canvas, cover of Outing, June 1907, Collection of the Brandywine River Museum)

Electric lighting, developed in the 1880s and common in urban areas by 1900, made reading after dark easier for a large portion of the population. Other technological advances, such as the high speed power-driven cylinder printing press and the change from cotton rag paper to wood pulp paper, reduced the costs of printing, enabling publishers to produce magazines for the widely affordable price of between 5 and 25 cents an issue. The United States Postal Service established bulk rate mailing subsidies by 1880, and in 1902 the newly instituted rural free delivery system enabled farm families everywhere to receive the same periodicals purchased by urbanites at numberless newsstands.

Innovations in photography and printing allowed publishers to include more pictures. Between 1880 and 1930, artwork became one of a magazine's distinguishing features and an important component in a highly competitive business. The public clamored for more illustrations of increasingly better quality. Widespread use after the 1880s of half-tone methods of reproduction allowed editors and publishers to meet the demand.

In 1908 the Beck Engraving Company of Philadelphia produced the first set of four color plates for wet printing, a milestone in commercial color reproduction, and legions of illustrators began to think in color. For the first time, the cost effectiveness of quality reproduction also made mass advertising lucrative. Many artists who provided the illustrations for articles and stories also painted vignettes designed to sell tooth powder, breakfast cereal or automobiles.

At this time, N.C. Wyeth arrived in Wilmington. Howard Pyle, pre-eminent illustrator of the period, sought a disciple and heir. The effect of his teaching on Wyeth was sudden and profound. Pyle emphasized drama and first-hand knowledge of a subject, and Wyeth learned his lessons well. Pyle alerted Wyeth to impending advances in color reproduction, and Wyeth developed and refined his innate sense of color to meet the demands of industry and the public. Wyeth's success as a Pyle student is represented in the exhibition by his painting of a bronco buster which appeared on the cover of Saturday Evening Post (February 21, 1903), less than four months after beginning to study with Pyle. Wyeth sold the image for $50 to one of the most popular weekly magazines of the period with a paid circulation of over a half million. N.C. Wyeth Arrives in Wilmington will be the first time this important painting, loaned by the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, has been seen in Chadds Ford.

The exhibition also includes a selection of images by the great illustrators of the day such as Edwin Austin Abbey, Pyle and Frederic Remington. These images, which provided inspiration and challenge to aspiring young illustrators, are presented as Wyeth would have seen them, as reproductions in the pages of the "monthlies."

The major portion of the exhibition is devoted to a selection of paintings Wyeth did for magazines prior to 1911, the pictures that earned him the commission to illustrate Treasure Island. Today, Wyeth's paintings, in their size, coloration and dramatic compositions, are favorites of many museum visitors. But in the first decade of the 20th century his reputation rested almost solely on reproductions of his images. The reproductions, often in black and white and printed on poor quality paper at a fraction the size of the original, are shown beside the paintings in the gallery.

Visitors will understand why Wyeth, like many illustrators, was often disappointed in the published images and felt they unfairly represented his work. Yet the power of his paintings defied poor reproduction. At the end of the exhibition, a collage of Wyeth's published images will give the visitor a sense of the vitality and versatility that the young artist brought to his work in the early years of his career.


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