The year was 1902, and a 20-year-old art student named Newell Convers “N.C.” Wyeth decided to take a chance and submit a proposal for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The whole idea was outlandish. Many older, more experienced professionals had never won a coveted Post cover assignment. But Wyeth was young and brash. And besides, he needed the money.
Much to Wyeth’s surprise, the Post accepted the proposal. He was paid $60 (nearly $1,500 in today’s currency) to paint a cover of a cowboy on a bucking bronco. Wyeth was in heaven.
Despite Wyeth’s early success, his instructor, the legendary illustrator and teacher Howard Pyle, urged him to get more practical training. Pyle was the founder of America’s foremost school for illustrators. His students later became known as the Brandywine School of Illustrators. Pyle was aware that Wyeth, who’d grown up on a farm in Needham, Massachusetts, had never been out West. He felt that Wyeth’s western paintings would gain authenticity from firsthand experience of his subject and urged N.C. — and all of his students — to “throw your heart into the picture then jump in after it.”
Heeding these words, Wyeth boarded a train in September of 1904, landing first in Denver and then working his way through Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. It was a rugged trip. N.C. was thrown off his horse more than once, broke a few bones, survived a deadly stampede, drove a stagecoach, herded cattle, visited remote trading posts, and lived among Native American tribes. Along the way, he crammed his portfolio full of sketches and collected saddles, bridles, guns, rugs, costumes, and other props that he would later use in paintings.
He also took voluminous notes, writing after an arduous day of work, “I was hungry and tired as I never was before. After supper, a circle of men gathered about the campfire. … The conversation slowly died with the fire and one by one the dark somber faces disappeared from the light. I was the last to leave — crawled into my blankets and lay for a moment looking into the heavens at the myriad of stars. … As I lay there I heard the faint singing of a night herder floating across the plains.” Despite his exhaustion, Wyeth was always moved by the poetry of his surroundings.
In late December 1904, N.C. returned from his expedition brimming with inspiration and energy, writing, “Now when I paint a figure on horseback, a man plowing, or a woman buffeted by the wind, I have an acute sense of the muscle strain, the feel of the hickory handle, or the protective bend of the head and squint of eye that each pose involves. After painting action scenes, I have ached for hours because of having put myself in the other fellow’s shoes as I realized him on canvas.”
Between 1904 and 1906, he would make two more trips west, returning with sketches and memories of impressions of the light, landscape, people, and mood of the Southwest that contributed to his iconic representations of the wilderness and Native Americans.
As his reputation grew, N.C. became swamped with requests to illustrate cowboy books and magazines for other publishers. By 1907, Wyeth was heralded by Outing Magazine as “one of our greatest, if not our greatest, painter of American outdoor life,” with illustrations appearing in many of the most popular magazines of the period, including not just the Post, but also Ladies’ Home Journal, McClure’s, Harper’s Monthly, and others. In 1911, publisher Charles Scribner’s and Sons commissioned Wyeth to illustrate Treasure Island. The full-scale paintings for the beloved novel are considered masterpieces of American illustration. In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “Treasure Island is completed! The entire set of 17 canvases without one break in my enthusiasm and spirit. Better in every quality than anything I ever did.” Treasure Island was a critical and popular success, Scribner’s paid Wyeth $2,500 for his illustrations, enough to buy 18 acres along the Brandywine River Valley that would become home to generations of Wyeths. His lifelike, detailed, and dramatic illustrations brought new life to such classics as Robin Hood, Rip Van Winkle, Robinson Crusoe, and many others. Over time, Wyeth became as famous as many of the authors whose stories he illustrated.
In his first 17 years as an illustrator, the prolific artist created 561 illustrations for 275 different publications. Wyeth also enjoyed a reputation as a muralist and created magazine advertisements, proving himself to be an expert draughtsman and colorist and mastering a range of techniques from the broadly brushed to the near photographic.
Despite critical acclaim and prosperity, N.C. gradually became dissatisfied with his life as an illustrator. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Wyeth became increasingly obsessed with becoming a fine artist. As recounted in Douglas Allen’s biography N.C. Wyeth, The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, N.C. wrote, “I have passed through two months of the worst depression I ever remember. I have been highly conscious of certain serious artistic weaknesses that stand between me and the next step ahead. Only thorough application will overcome the difficulty I guess.”
He began turning down illustrations and other commercial projects so he could devote more time to painting still lifes, portraits, and landscapes — many of them in the Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, region where he resided and at his summer home in Port Clyde, Maine.
Wyeth created nearly 2,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books, but his life was cut short before he achieved the recognition as a fine artist that he so craved. He died in 1945 when his car stalled on the railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming freight train. However, today his reputation is being revisited by scholars and museum curators who appreciate the “fine art” quality of his paintings that are commanding high prices in auction houses and galleries.
Despite this tragic death, Wyeth had lived long enough to see his children launched on their own careers as successful and important artists.
And it all began with that first cover for the Post.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The paintings included in this article are on view through September 15, 2019, at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, as part of its N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives exhibition, co-organized by the Brandywine River Museum and the Portland Museum of Art. The exhibition features about 70 paintings and drawings and is described as the first “in nearly 50 years to examine in depth the entirety of Wyeth’s oeuvre, repositioning him within the greater context of early 20th century American visual culture.” For more information, visit brandywine.org.
This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Bright and Fair, 1936 (Farnsworth Art Museum).
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