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Another look at N.C. Wyeth, American art patriarch


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: "Star Wars" creator George Lucas and "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin have cited him as an influence on their work, helping them imagine what an adventure story might look like.

Now, N.C. Wyeth, who led a family of American art royalty, gets a new look in an exhibition of his illustrations and paintings.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our ongoing arts and culture series, "Canvas."

Jeffrey Brown: The beautiful Brandywine River Valley in Pennsylvania: inspiration and home to Newell Convers better known as N.C. Wyeth.

Today, it's also home to the Brandywine River Museum of Art, in Chadds Ford, which is giving Wyeth a new look. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote the beloved adventure tale, "Treasure Island." But for millions of American, beginning in the early 20th century, it was Wyeth who created the lasting images of pirates and much more.

Christine Podmaniczky: The personal paintings, the illustrations, he did mural work, he did advertising work. So, his reach into the different aspects of visual culture is so broad.

Jeffrey Brown: Christine Podmaniczky is co-curator of the exhibition, "N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives." The goal here: to present a more well-rounded portrait of an artist who painted scenes of rural life here and in coastal Maine, where he had a residence, but who remains best known for his book illustrations, the smaller reproductions of his large-scale paintings for such classic children's stories as "Robin Hood", "Last of the Mohicans", "King Arthur".

Wyeth's genius, says Podmaniczky, was to find just the right moment in the story to bring to life.

As when young Jim Hawkins first leaves home in treasure island.

Christine Podmaniczky: I said goodbye to mother and the cove. That's all Stevenson writes --

Jeffrey Brown: That's it?

Christine Podmaniczky: That's it.

Jeffrey Brown: One line?

Christine Podmaniczky: That's it. All he writes about Jim Hawkins leaving home, going off on this exploit where he's to search for treasure. But when you look at the painting, you see how much N.C. Wyeth has brought here in the form of emotion. First of all, the characters themselves, the look on Jim Hawkins face. But his use of shadow, the sharp lines, the sort of cloud over the mother, posture, all sorts of things heighten the sense of what's going on.

Jeffrey Brown: Wyeth's first breakthrough, in 1902, was a cover for the "Saturday Evening Post," imagery of an already past and mythic American west. He created magazine advertisements, including for "Cream of Wheat".

It was a time before television and our own screen-saturated lives, the golden age of illustration, and Wyeth was at its forefront. The commissions allowed him to buy property here in Pennsylvania and to support the other part of his life for which he became best known: as patriarch of an American art family dynasty, father of five children, three of them painters, most famously the youngest, Andrew.

Andrew Wyeth would become one of the biggest names in 20th century American art, also focusing on his hometown of Chadds Ford and summer home in Maine, including the celebrated Christina's World from 1948.

Andrew's son, N.C.'s grandson, is Jamie Wyeth.

This is the grounds of your childhood, huh?

Jamie Wyeth: Yes, my grandfather's orchard and whatnot, and then my aunt used this and studio.

Jeffrey Brown: Jamie, now 73 and also a prominent painter, first learned to draw in the grand studio N.C. built here. Jamie never knew his grandfather, who died in 1945, age 62, in a car accident at a railroad crossing. The studio is owned by the Brandywine Museum.

This is pretty much the way it was when you were a kid?

Jamie Wyeth: Totally, it hasn't been changed at all. It's as if he walked out of it yesterday.

Jeffrey Brown: He painted this giant mural for a Wilmington bank.

Jamie Wyeth: My father told me that he would watch his father walk up, put a brush stroke on, and walk back to see the visual effect.

Jeffrey Brown: So, he'd go up and back and up and back.

Jamie Wyeth: Back and forth, yes, putting them in -- I mean, it's pretty loosely and thinly done when you get up to it, but to do this expression and then get back knowing this thing would be 50 feet from the viewers, and whatnot.

Jeffrey Brown: All around, the collection of items he gathered for his book illustrations.

Jamie Wyeth: Coming to this studio was magical to me because here, it was full of costumes and cutlasses and flintlocks, and a lot of his illustrations were still in the back room here. So I'd go through them for hours.

Jeffrey Brown: This was like the amusement park in a way.

Jamie Wyeth: Oh, my God, it was just magical. My father, of course, I would pump him and ask him about N.C. Wyeth and he said, he wanted the paintings to leap out of the page as you read them, to grab you by the neck. And they sure do.

Jeffrey Brown: As the show makes clear, though, N.C. also had larger ambitions: to be taken seriously as a fine artist, rather than just a successful commercial illustrator.

Much of the exhibition's second floor displays the more personal paintings Wyeth created largely for himself, as well as two from his late-in-life, first solo exhibition in a New York gallery. Among those: island funeral, which uses paint Wyeth made from dyes he received from the nearby DuPont Company

Christine Podmaniczky: Ands that's how he gets these beautiful, deep, sort of jewel-like tones here. There's a lot of tension going on here between the old-fashioned bird's eye view, the new cutting-edge dyes, the death of an island patriarch.

Well, N.C. Wyeth is in his late 50's at this point, he is already been publicized, if you will, as the patriarch of his own family. So there are thoughts, I think, of mortality here.

Jeffrey Brown: There are also signs of Wyeth, a traditional artist, flicking at some of the more modern painting techniques of his time.

Christine Podmaniczky: This is one of the most fascinating paintings as far as technique goes because you have him here trying to capture the light on this chain mail or armor, and it's just a magnificent piece of painting.

Jeffrey Brown: And grandson Jamie goes so far to see in this exhibition an unusual kind of group show all by one painter.

Jamie Wyeth: He tried so many different techniques, so many different approaches. Some are very Cezanne-like, broken color, impressionistic, tried them all, which is wonderful, I guess, you know? There's a wonderful little self- portrait of him looking. It's just teeny and just very delicately done.

Jeffrey Brown: Painting, Jamie says, has been the family passion.

Jamie Wyeth: It was sort of like another world, the comparing the three generations and so forth. And I happen to adore their work. I mean, these two individuals, very different individuals, very different approaches to painting -- I mean, what a thing to build on.

Jeffrey Brown: The elder Wyeth himself, though, never achieved the recognition he craved.

Jamie Wyeth: He looked at it and thought his life had just been doing these children's books. It was hard for me to conceive that, though. I mean, he had to have looked at -- I remember my mother, she said when she first met him, she was very young and said, oh, Mr. Wyeth, I love your illustrations, your "Treasure Island", and he said, you'll grow out of that.

Jeffrey Brown: Really?

Jamie Wyeth: Uh-huh. And he was wrong.

Jeffrey Brown: "N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives" is at the Brandywine River Museum of Art through September 15th.

For the "PBS NewsHour", I'm Jeffrey Brown in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

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