N. C. Wyeth: A Biography

ISBN 10: 0679426264 / ISBN 13: 9780679426264
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Synopsis: An American painting dynasty is portrayed in this huge, riveting biography of N. C. Wyeth.

        His name summons up our earliest images of the beloved books we read as children. His illustrations for Scribner's Illustrated Classics (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Last of the Mohicans, The Yearling) are etched into the collective memory of generations of readers. He was hailed as the greatest American illustrator of his day. For forty-three years, starting in 1902, he painted landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and murals as well as illustrations for a long shelf of world literature. Yet he proclaimed "the uselessness of clinging to illustration and hoping to make it a great art." He judged himself a failure, believing that illustration was of no importance.

        Despite the darkness of his temperament, he was a towering figure of gargantuan appetites and physical power. His passions were rooted in the nineteenth century. He made adventure, nature, and "the vastness of things" his earliest personal themes. America was his canvas.

        David Michaelis's biography of N. C. Wyeth tells the story of his family through four generations. It is
a family saga that begins and ends with the accidental deaths of small boys, a gothic tale that shows how N.C., while learning to live a safe and familiar domestic life, endangered himself and his children by concealing part of the family legacy--depression, suicide, incest.

        We see how his mother's emotional instability and his father's strictness set the stage for his profoundly divided personality. He found in fatherhood the foremost expression of his character--trying to create in the Wyeth homestead his dream of childhood at its most enchanting. He held his children enthralled through their adult lives. He persuaded his inventor son, Nat, to live at home, shepherded his daughter Ann's career as a composer, and taught his three other children--Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew (N.C. was Andrew's only teacher)--to paint.

        The illustrations that N. C. Wyeth undervalued are now regarded as American classics--the paintings that appeared in Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Last of the Mohicans are in museums, joining, as John Updike wrote, "the mainstream of American easel painting."

        His work lives. The artist himself is brought alive in David Michaelis's fully realized portrait of this huge-spirited, deeply complicated man, his family, and an America that was quickly vanishing.

Review: N.C. Wyeth's wondrous paintings of The Last of the Mohicans, Robinson Crusoe, and Treasure Island have given visual form to these stories for generations of readers. Wyeth's extraordinary pictures still carry all the power they had in their heyday. And communal, millennial-bound nostalgia for the first half of the 20th century gives the paintings, if possible, an even more sentimental glow. This meticulous, encompassing study of the tempestuous, difficult, brilliant illustrator also delves into the entire clan of famous Wyeth artists, including Andrew (who was offered a bribe to delay his marriage), and Peter Hurd (who married Andrew's sister Henriette then escaped with her to New Mexico).

David Michaelis has done an extraordinary amount of research, and the book should mesmerize Wyeth fans. But he seems to doubt his own ability to make this dramatic material come alive, for he resorts to false suspense--using a baby's death and the suggestion of foul play on page 1 to hook the reader, but nearly 200 pages later allows that there's not really any evidence for his conjectures. And he liberally employs italics, giving the text an insistent tone that is at times intrusive. Nonetheless, Michaelis adroitly chronicles Wyeth's complicated, fraught relationship with his family. And he is especially perceptive in his analysis of N.C.'s stormy ties to his mentor, Howard Pyle. The artist's genteel inability to talk money, even during the Depression; his devotion to his neurotic mother; and the magical world of Chadd's Ford, where he watchfully, jealously raised his children, are all beautifully described. This is a valuable, multifaceted look at a passionate, difficult subject. In the end, Wyeth emerges, warts and all, as a complex individual, whose inner life was thoroughly entwined with every aspect of his art. --Peggy Moorman

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Title: N. C. Wyeth: A Biography
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