Book Review: N.C. Wyeth Biography by David Michaelis
I've been a big admirer of N.C.'s work for a few years and have had the privilege of seeing some of his work in person (there's a great piece from Robin Hood at the Society of Illustrators in NY). Nothing compares to the original artwork which is usually quite large and full of colors that are often lost in publication (one of N.C.'s major grievances as an illustrator in the early 1900s).
The book was a great read and really helped me to understand the work of N.C. Wyeth a lot better. He was a protege of Howard Pyle, another great name in American illustration, often referred to as the father of American illustration. He offered an extensive and exhausting education to gifted artists from across America. Maxfield Parrish, Frank E. Schoonover and Jessie Wilcox Smith were also students of Pyle's, studying in a studio built for them in Wilmington, Delaware.
All of their education was provided free of charge, courtesy of Howard Pyle.
N.C. (Newell Convers) immediately became the top student and pride of Mr. Pyle who would pass down gifts to Wyeth and helped him secure some of his first work in the publishing world of illustration. That kind of generosity and friendship would help launch N.C.'s career.
N.C. began his career under Pyle's tutelage in 1903 with a cover for the Saturday Evening Post and would go on to illustrate Sribner's Illustrated Classics (for which Wyeth set the mold with his illustrations for Treasure Island) and many other books, providing his colorful and dramatic paintings to bring the books to life.
As great as an illustrator as Wyeth was, he struggled his whole life with the idea that he was merely an illustrator painting simple pictures rather than painting the "big picture " and being recognized by art institutions. The attitude that illustration was a lesser form of art was influenced by Pyle who implored Wyeth to quit illustration to make a career of painting "bigger" pictures.
He made himself famous with his illustrations - and rich. In the early 1900s when the average annual income was about $2000, Wyeth was making $500 for magazine illustrations, $1,500 for advertisements and $3000-$4000 for book illustrations. Additionally, he made hundreds of dollars on the sale of his original artwork, but only if he felt it was a good enough painting to sell (he once refused to sell a painting for $1000 because "no illustration ever painted is worth that much.").
This book is possible thanks to thousands of letters written by N.C. to his family members, mostly to his mother who he often wrote to daily.
We learn of Wyeth's frustrations with painting, his courtship of his wife and the birth and development of his children as artists. We get a great glimpse into the early career of Andrew Wyeth and how his success affected N.C.
The book is extremely detailed with exact dates, quotations and summer vacations. I really enjoyed reading this book and learning more about the artist whose work I admire. It helped to give me a new level of understanding to his work, as many of his pieces were autobiographical even if they were completed for Treasure Island or Robin Hood. The trees and landscape of his home in Chadds Ford, PA are visible in many of his paintings.
Thankfully this book has some of N.C.'s paintings reproduced throughout the book (some black and white, some color) so you can actually see a number of the paintings that are written about.
If there was one thing missing from this book is would be a better understanding of N.C.'s artistic process.
For anyone interested in Golden Age illustration or N.C. Wyeth I'd highly recommend this book. It was a definite bonus to learn so much about Andrew Wyeth as well, he is another of my favorite artists.