Farnsworth Art Museum

Rockland, ME



The following essay is reprinted with permission of the author and the Farnsworth Art Museum.


One Nation: Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N. C. Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth / Foreword

By David Michaelis


N. C. Wyeth raised his children to live like patriots and think like pirates. He taught them, in other words, to be self-reliant, free from outside influence, dependent on each other and the family's traditions. He schooled them in a kind of citizenship based on a deep emotional attachment to the land on which they had been born. Like the citizens of Athens, the Wyeths of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, lived autochthonous lives in the locality of their birth, resisting change from outside sources, imbuing their art with the hues and shades of the Brandywine Valley and, in some works, with the very earth itself.

"A man must live in the country he interprets," Wyeth insisted, adding, "he can only interpret the country in which he was born and where his people lived before him."

N. C. Wyeth was born in Needham, Massachusetts, to parents who joined the Old World and the New. Wyeth grew up continually torn between American and Swiss forefathers. His paternal ancestors, landowning Wyeths stretching back to 1645, had destroyed tea at the Boston Tea Party, marched to the alarm at Lexington and at Concord on April 19, 1775, and fought the Redcoats on Bunker Hill. From the Wyeths of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and from his father, Andrew Newell Wyeth, a Boston hay inspector, he developed a lifelong habit of idealizing his country's past.

His maternal grandparents, meanwhile, were Swiss immigrants. His grandfather, Jean Denys Zirngiebel, came to America in 1856 and became a successful florist, with a national reputation for developing new strains of pansies. Flowers from the Zirngiebel greenhouses were shipped weekly to the White House and War Department during the second of President Grover Cleveland's administrations. From the Zirngiebels of Needham, Massachusetts, N. C. Wyeth inherited a tradition of longing for distant homelands. His mother, Henriette Zirngiebel Wyeth, a lifelong sufferer of homesickness and depression, passed on to her oldest son a profound, almost crippling form of nostalgia, itself a Swiss phenomenon.

Dual identity appeared early in Wyeth's life and never left him. In time and place, N. C. Wyeth was always of two minds. Switzerland, after all, inhabits the past. America lives in the present. Americans suffer amnesia. The Swiss suffer long memories. To Americans like Henry Ford, "history is bunk." But the Swiss mind, as Carl Jung observed, remains "intimately connected with the past."

Throughout his life, Wyeth felt a mystic connection with all things Swiss. For all the pride he took in the established American Wyeths, it was the Swiss Zirngiebels -- the home-haunted immigrant family living in a colony on South Street -- who most deeply affected Wyeth in later life. In 1915, on a train to New York, he met a German immigrant who told Wyeth the saga of his coming to America. Wyeth at first noticed that the man resembled his Swiss grandfather. Then, when it turned out that the man had actually known Jean Denys Zirngiebel, in the flower business in Needham, the coincidence "infused [Wyeth] with an energy that comes as near being Holy as it is in my power to conceive."

As a matter of fact, N.C. Wyeth himself had the right to be Swiss. In Switzerland, as in New England, the town meeting is the essential building block of government. Legal power resides first in the Gemeinden, or commune, next in the Canton, last in the Confederation. Wyeth was entitled to full citizenship in his grandparents's communes, but he never took steps to change his loyalties. In fact, he never left his country. In his whole life, N. C. Wyeth never once went beyond the boundaries of the continental United States.

To his mother he announced: "Although I receive a steady flow of inspiration from the circulation of Swiss mountain blood in my veins, I also get tremendous help from my thoughts of this astonishing country of ours, and particularly from my home in Needham."

N.C. Wyeth spent much of his adult life yearning for his birthplace. Needham had sustained him through every phase of growth. Always alive, Needham never lost its hold over him. If he could only return there, he believed, his true identity would be restored and he would be fulfilled as man and artist. Living in Chadds Ford, surrounded by his wife and five children, he nevertheless felt continually homesick, emotionally bereft. He pined for Needham with the intensity of a European exile yearning for the old country. As with so much else in his life, he ritualized this yearning.

Every night before bed, with one hand thrust into the pocket of his jacket and the other fingering his pipe stem, he strode out onto the verandah of the Wyeth homestead and faced the direction of his birthplace. He lived on a hilltop in Chadds Ford and from the homestead he looked north across the valley of the Brandywine. For thirty years, he practiced "mental projection," as he called his nightly ritual of striding out onto his porch, facing to the Northeast, and imagining hurling himself home to Needham.

"This has so long been a belief in my mind that I am convinced were one to follow the direction indicated by my gaze that t'would not be long before the tops of the old spruces in front of the house would loom into view."

For Wyeth, Needham represented the land of original unity -- an immaculate, pine-fragrant world untouched by outsiders, innocent of evil. The secure, insular colony of his South Street childhood was directly linked to Switzerland and the nonstop search for home. The history of Switzerland, after all, is the struggle of a multi-lingual people to decide where and to whom they belong. To France? To Germany? To Italy? Or to an abstract confederation of all three? If union is the theme of America's continual national struggle, then belonging is Switzerland's. For 500 years, Switzerland has struggled to reconcile itself to its multiple selves.

For four generations of Wyeths, Switzerland was a longed-for, never-visited place. Henriette Zirngiebel Wyeth made no effort to show N. C. and his brothers the lost country. She rarely left South Street. After Newell Wyeth built a house (its style was called "Germanic Cottage") for his wife alongside her parents' homestead on South Street, N. C.'s mother ventured from Needham once or twice a year to take a rest cure in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She often said, "I don't really see how people are benefited by a change when they are longing for those that are dear to them."

"It is right that dear old Switzerland is your background of romance and idealism; it is right that my essential background is faith in and love of my natal country," N. C. told his mother, adding with pride: "The tremendous idealistic advances of the United States in the course of 140 years are astounding and cannot be matched by any other country on the globe."

The first decades of the twentieth century were a good time to be young and American. N.C. Wyeth was as emphatically patriotic as a first-generation immigrant: "I am an American," he wrote in 1914, on the eve of Europe's collapse into the Great War. "I do not weep every time I see the Stars and Stripes -- no I'm not that kind; but, my God, I was born here and nourished on this continent's soil/"

Wyeth's patriotism was born, as he was, in the 19th century. He made adventure, nature, the "vastness of things" his earliest personal themes. America was his canvas. "I have no enthusiasm to see Europe except perhaps the homes of my people and a mere curiosity to see the country, but nothing deeper," he announced in 1903. "There are just as great subjects here to paint. I've fully decided what I will do. Not altogether Western life, but true, solid American subjects -- nothing foreign about them."

In 1904, and again in 1906, he made sketching trips for popular magazines to what was still the Old West. In 1905, he rode mounted, uniformed as a cowpuncher, in President Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural parade. He wore wide-brimmed Western hats the rest of his life, entering rooms with a bouncing stride. His language ("He was always saying `That's bully!'" one of his children remembers) savored of the American Empire, but his letters made him sound like a Swiss soldier, with their continual expression of "home-spirit," their ceaseless longing for a lost homeland, a sense of oneness with nature, and life in an extended family.

N. C. Wyeth's contributions to One Nation are the Solid American Subjects he set out to paint as a young man and continued to explore until the penultimate day of his life, when he left on his easel a portrait of George Washington, First Farmer of the Land. Here are the muscular, masculine images of the American Empire: Marines come smashing ashore. A 20th-century tank pushes through the old walled city in Jerusalem, its side gun mounts barely clearing ancient archways. John Paul Jones stands ready for battle, knees locked, shoulders squared, chest out. Stonewall Jackson, flanked by livid sundown clouds and his warhorse, stares down defeat. Here, in short, are men who live for the chance to die for their country -- patriots.

In 1911, with the publication of the first book in the Scribner Illustrated classic series, N. C. Wyeth became famous also for painting pirates. Throughout Wyeth's career as an illustrator, America was in a constant cycle of pirates and patriots. In times of prosperity, pirates on Wall Street bled the wealth of the nation. When the country fell into chaos, patriotism was reborn; men and women on Main Street once again gave their lives for a cause larger than themselves. The values of self-sacrifice were ceaselessly pitted against the vices of self-absorption.

Among N. C. Wyeth's values none was higher than sacrifice. First as a son and later as a father, he found a natural part of his character in subverting his artistic goals in order to meet the emotional demands of a large, complicated family. In 1917, when America at last entered the Great War in Europe, Wyeth was officially asked on four separate occasions to go overseas as a war artist. Four times he put the needs of his young, growing family before the needs of his country, each time suffering a "period of real torture of mind to decide between duty and duty."

Typically, N. C. was merciless with himself as he wrestled over the decision. He vacillated wildly about the effect the Great War would have on his painting. On the one hand, he imagined that the Western Front would so completely degrade him as a man, he would be incapable as an artist of painting "big stuff for some time after the excitement had subsided." On the other hand, how could he turn away from the "war to end all wars"? N. C. Wyeth had a gift for painting the human figure in combat. Yet his response to war was more typical of the man than of the artist: he stayed at home and put the family first.

In the nine generations of Wyeths who have contributed to American life since 1645, only the first four fulfilled the Jeffersonian dream of an amateur citizen militia. The last three generations have used paintbrushes instead of guns to respond to the country's needs in time of war. For both World War I and II, N. C. Wyeth painted war bonds posters; in 1942, one N. C. Wyeth poster sold $200,000 worth of bonds; another took in $1 million. That same year, Andrew Wyeth, 4-F on account of an inherited pelvic condition, contributed to the war effort by painting a poster depicting American welders wasting no time lest the Nazi wehrmacht overwhelm Allied manufacturing: "OUR ENEMIES WILL USE THE MINUTES WE LOSE!"

Faced with war at age 18, Jamie Wyeth confronted a decision no less black-and-white than his grandfather's struggle of 1917-18. In the increasingly polarized world of 1965-66, Jamie Wyeth's generation either went to Vietnam or burned a draft card and went underground. Wyeth had friends in the war. He also had friends who were protesting American involvement in Southeast Asia. "I was back and forth on the thing," he recalls. Wyeth joined the Delaware Air National Guard, taking basic training in Texas and serving as an airman from 1966 to 1971. He was on his way to a combat zone as a war artist when the Tet Offensive of 1968 kept all non-combatants out of action.

It was the era when bumper stickers at home warned LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT -- as if anyone who had soured on America's commitment to a guerilla war in Southeast Asia should get the hell out of America itself. Jamie Wyeth's widely renowned portrait Draft Age (1965) is an icon of that factional era Monhegan Island, where Wyeth found the subjects of many early works, was no less a microcosm for the struggles of that divided time. In World War II, every eligible man on Monhegan fought for his country. Monhegan Island was the one place in America that could claim one-hundred-percent participation. The Vietnam War was a different story. One man from Monhegan went for his army physical with peanut butter smeared in protest across his backside. During the Vietnam era, the island was a popular destination for the counterculture. In summer, freaks and longhairs could be found skinny-dipping and smoking dope on the backside of the island. The reaction of the older generation can be seen in Jamie Wyeth's Islanders, who sit in the shadows of their porch, taking cover behind the flag. Old Glory guards their privacy, shielding the memory of loved ones, now dead or far absent, and papering over feelings long buried at the core of the house.

Jamie Wyeth's early career as a national observer is full of rising pinnacles. In hindsight his development looks orchestrated, so gracefully did the artist move from phenomenon to phenomenon, subject to subject, place to place -- Clan Kennedy to Cape Kennedy -- with increasing subtlety and penetration and a mastery that is still hard to believe possible in one so young. But in fact, it took nerve and a willingness to be singular and even strange to paint these subjects, many of which were big news at the moment when the artist brought his ultra-personal and deadline-resistant gaze to the national scene. Jamie Wyeth's point of view almost never mirrors the temper of the times. Whether it's a Gemini rocket pulsing on the launch pad or President Kennedy, absorbed by some inner struggle or unresolved idea, allowing his presidential attention to wander for an instant, or the duplicitous Long John Silvers of Watergate on trial, we are encouraged to witness the country's heroes and villains without presumptions.

From Thomas Jefferson and the rise of the rebellion against England to the fall of Richard Nixon, Jamie Wyeth's chronicling eye tells the story of the nation's evolution from pirates to patriots to pirates and back again. Seen alongside N. C. Wyeth's retellings of our cyclical history, these images remind us that there are always two sides to our national identity. Patriots (from the Greek, patriotes, from patrios, "of one's fathers") live for the chance to die for the land they will pass on to their sons. Pirates, willing to live at any price, die under no flag but their own.


About the author:

David Michaelis is the author of N. C. WYETH: A Biography (1998) and a contributor to Wondrous Strange: The Wyeth Tradition (1998) and One Nation: Patriots and Pirates Portrayed By N. C. Wyeth and James Wyeth (2000). His previous works include a collection of biographical sketches, The Best of Friends (1983), a novel, Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl (1989), and a nonfiction narrative, Mushroom (1978). His writing has appeared in The American Scholar, American Heritage, The New Republic, and Vanity Fair. He has received the 1999 Ambassador Award for Biography given by the English Speaking Union of the United States, and his essay "Provincetown" has been included in The Best American Essays 2001, edited by Kathleen Norris. He is currently at work on the life of Charles M. Schulz. This Foreward was featured in the "One Nation" exhibition catalog, published in 2000 by Bulfinch Press.


Please see our related article One Nation: Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N.C. Wyeth and James Wyeth (8/12/00).

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