Farnsworth Art Museum

Rockland, Maine

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Wondrous Strange: Inagural Exhibition for the Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine

Interior and extrerior views of Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine, 1998. Photo: Brian Vanden Brink


The eerie, the uncanny, and the unexpected will be featured in Wondrous Strange, the inaugural exhibition at the Farnsworth Art Museum's Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine. On view through November 8, 1998, the exhibition presents a fresh and surprising view of the art of the Wyeths, showing how it is rooted in literary fancies: tales of exotic adventures and spiritual journeys, stories of romantic encounters, and children's fables, all played out on the stage of everyday life.

Wondrous Strange was conceived by Andrew Wyeth's wife, Betsy James Wyeth, and organized by Mrs. Wyeth in collaboration with the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington and the Farnsworth Art Museum. After its debut at the Farnsworth Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine, the exhibition will travel to the Delaware Art Museum for viewing from December 10, 1998 to February 7, 1999. More than 100 works of art will be on display in Wondrous Strange, drawn from 40 public and private collections in the United States and abroad. The exhibition includes 25 to 30 works apiece by N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth. Also on view: 25 to 30 pictures by Howard Pyle, the outstanding American illustrator who was N.C. Wyeth's teacher, and whose influence runs through the work of all three generations of Wyeths.

"We could have opened the Wyeth Center with a 'greatest hits' show," says Susan C. Larsen, chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum. "Instead, we chose to present a thematic exhibition, drawing attention to a little-understood aspect of the Wyeths' art. As a family, the Wyeths have held on to an important legacy from 19th-century America, going back to the philosophy of the Transcendentalists and the tales of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Larsen continues, "Visitors who simply want to enjoy each picture on its own terms will find Wondrous Strange to be a fascinating excursion into the realm of the bizarre and the theatrical. But visitors who are curious about how the Wyeths became the Wyeths, and who want to think about their place in American art, will discover a new wealth of information about the sources of their artistic practice, going back to N.C. Wyeth's teacher, Howard Pyle."

Defining a 100-Year Tradition

One of the most successful book and magazine illustrators of his time, Howard Pyle was born in 1853 in Wilmington, Delaware. Coming of age in the Brandywine Valley in the aftermath of the Civil War, the young Pyle immersed himself in the founding myths of American history--especially the life of George Washington and accounts ofthe Revolutionary War--later making them frequent subjects of his art. He also was exposed at an early age to the mystical doctrines of the Swedenborgian church; the visionary poems and illuminations of William Blake; the colorful, highly detailed, quasi-literary paintings of the re-Raphaelites, with their nostalgia for an imaginary Middle Ages.

Right: Howard Pyle, So the Treasure Was Divided, 1905, oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches, collection of the Delaware Art Museum

After a brief period of study in Philadelphia, Pyle followed the example of the Pre-Raphaelites and members of the Arts and Crafts movement and took up the practice of book illustration. Among his subjects were the adventures of Robin Hood, the legends of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor and the bloody deeds ofpirates such as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. He also wrote and illustrated stories of his own, set in the realm of myths and dreams, such as The Wonder Clock (1888) and The Garden Behind the Moon (1895).

In addition to being an outstanding illustrator, Pyle was active as a teacher throughout his life. In 1898, he set up a summer school in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and in 1900 he established his own Howard Pyle School of Art in Wilmington, at which he offered tuition-free instruction to a certain number of promising young artists. Among them was N.C. Wyeth.

" ...We were told to throw ourselves into the subject we have chosen heart and soul"---not an unwelcome instruction for someone of N.C. Wyeth's character.

A fellow student, Thornton Oakley, later recalled his impressions of N.C. Wyeth in Pyle's school: "No more exuberant personality have I ever known, none more bubbling with the ecstasy of living....His was an eager, searching spirit, a spectacular career, one full of color, color figurative and color actual." Wyeth was 20 when he entered Pyle's school in October 1902. He brought with him a solid background in drawing and a basic knowledge of the traditions and techniques of illustration. What he got from Pyle (to quote again from Oakley) was a deeper feeling for "the underlying spirituality of the subject. We were told to throw ourselves into the subject we have chosen heart and soul"---not an unwelcome instruction for someone of N.C. Wyeth's character.

"Wyeth learned important things from Howard Pyle," notes Susan Larsen, "but as an artist, he did not imitate his mentor. The theatrical nature of Pyle's compositions often demanded the presence of multiple figures, like many players on a vast stage. N.C. Wyeth's genius as an illustrator arose from quite another turn of mind. He compressed the action into a controlled, delimited space, defined by detail, color, and implied scale. He focused upon a few figures, who told the story with gestures, facial expressions, and rippling outlines defined by dramatic lights and darks. The viewer was brought close to the action, often face-to-face. N.C. Wyeth made the printed page the true setting of his story."

Right: N. C. Wyeth, Blind Pew, 1911, oil on canvas, 47 x 38 inches, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Wyeth

Over the course of a remarkable career, N.C. Wyeth created more than 3,000 works, including the illustrations for 112 books. Among them were highly popular pictures for Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Treasure Island, Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He also passed on his knowledge of painting to his youngest child, Andrew.

Andrew Wyeth understood that his father had made a sacrifice for his career. Illustrators must subordinate their creative instincts to the visions of others. When he began his own career in the 1940s, Andrew Wyeth was determined to take a different path from his father's, creating an artistic world out of his own primary experiences.

Left: Andrew Wyeth, Trodden Weed, 1951, tempera on panel, 20 x 18 1/4 inches, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Wyeth

The section ofWondrous Strange devoted to the work of Andrew Wyeth contains images that are unmistakably rooted in realities: the pictures are full of identifiable people, buildings, landscapes, and events. And yet, like his father, Andrew Wyeth can transform these everyday elements, turning them into elemental, timeless moments of wonder. "Although celebrated as a great American realist, Andrew Wyeth has generally offered mystery rather than certainty in his art," says Susan Larsen." Admirers who characterize him as a painter of calm certainties miss the odd, willful, and marvelous incongruities lying in wait within the best of his work."

According to Larsen, the sense of continuity and connection through the generations shows itself most clearly in the art of Andrew's son, Jamie Wyeth. "His sense of drama is instinctive and often reminiscent of the complex staging of Howard Pyle or the dramatic, compressed images of his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth."

Right: Jamie Wyeth, The Rookery, 1977, oil on canvas, 31 x 43 inches, private collection

Like his father, Jamie Wyeth often dwells on the mysteries of individual personalities. (He first came to critical attention with a series of portraits of celebrated contemporary figures, including John F. Kennedy, Rudolf Nureyev, and Andy Warhol.) But Jamie Wyeth "loves to push color, contrast, and scale beyond the limits typical of his father's art," Larsen says. He is also unique in making highly original paintings of animals--works that have a precedent in English and European traditions but are rare in American art. In Wondrous Strange these singular characteristics of Jamie Wyeth's paintings are seen in the context of his making what Larsen calls "storied pictures," in a spirit that can be traced as far back as Howard Pyle.



Patriarch of the best-known family in American art, Newell Convers Wyeth was born in Needham, Massachusetts in 1882, into a family that had come from England in 1645. After an early period of studying drafting and illustration in Boston, N.C. Wyeth moved to Wilmington, Delaware in 1902 to study with one of the leading American illustrators of his time, Howard Pyle (1853-1911). This was the beginning of a prolific career, in the course of which N.C. Wyeth would produce more than 3,000 illustrations, including pictures for 112 books.

In 1906, N.C. Wyeth married Carolyn Brockius. The couple settled in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and raised a family of five children: Henriette, Carolyn, Nathaniel, Ann, and Andrew. Over time, Henriette (Hurd), Carolyn, and Andrew became painters, Nathaniel an engineer, and Ann (McCoy) a composer. Andrew, who suffered from ill health as a child, was schooled at home and received his artistic training from his father.

In the early 1930s, N.C. and Carolyn Wyeth renovated the former home of a sea captain in Port Clyde, Maine, and so established the family's close ties to the region. Named "Eight Bells" after the Winslow Homer painting ofthe same title, the home became the family's summer retreat, and a place where N.C. Wyeth could experiment with styles far removed from those of his illustrations. N.C. Wyeth and his grandson Newell died in 1945 in Chadds Ford, the victims of an accident at a railroad crossing.

The youngest child of N.C. and Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth was born in 1917. Using the subtle mediums of watercolor and egg tempera, which he practices in a painstaking, traditional manner, Andrew Wyeth has transformed everyday subjects--the people and scenes found near his home--into archetypes of American life.

He was given his first one-person gallery shows in 1936 and 1937, in Philadelphia and New York. His first solo museum exhibition was presented in 1951 at the Farnsworth Art Museum. Since then, his work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at many institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and major museums in Japan. Andrew Wyeth is a member of the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters and the Academie des Beaux-Arts. In 1990, he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

In 1940, Andrew Wyeth married author, editor, filmmaker, and preservationist Betsy James. The Wyeths have two sons--Nicholas, born in 1943, and Jamie--and divide their time between Chadds Ford and Cushing, Maine.

James Browning Wyeth, known as Jamie, was born in 1946 and schooled at home, like his father. He also studied painting with his aunt Carolyn. He achieved early recognition with a posthumous portrait of President John F. Kennedy, completed when Jamie Wyeth was 21. His first solo museum exhibition was at the Farnsworth Art Museum in1969. The Farnsworth most recently devoted a full exhibition to his work in 1993, with Jamie Wyeth: Islands.

Left: Jamie Wyeth, Iris at Sea, Study #2, 1993

Jamie Wyeth has been drawn to his grandfather's preferred medium of oil paint, and he also works in watercolor like his father. The majority of his work consists of images of wildlife and portraits, many of them reflecting the way of life on the islands of Maine.

In 1968, Jamie Wyeth married Phyllis Mills. They divide their time between a farm in Delaware and an island off the coast of Maine. Photographs of Andrew Wyeth, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth by family photographer Peter Ralston are available on the photographer's website.

Ed.: For contemporaneous images from the Wyeth Center visit their website page at http://www.wyethcenter.com/current.htm

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 7/23/10

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