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Artists Who Died Too Soon: N.C. Wyeth

Updated on August 25, 2016
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Self Portrait
Self Portrait | Source
ca. 1920
ca. 1920 | Source

Newell Convers Wyeth (October 22, 1882 – October 19, 1945)

It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists because there is so much more they could have contributed to the beauty of the world. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.

Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the melancholy artists. When I am happy, I’m an ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.

That’s what happens to most artists. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness and drug addiction before their work was done. This is the story of Newell Convers Wyeth who enriched us with just 62 years and died in a terrible accident with a train.

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N.C. Wyeth

Newell Convers Wyeth was one of the greatest American illustrators. He preferred to go by N.C. Wyeth and signed his work that way. In his lifetime, he created over 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books; 25 of them for Scribner’s. One of the sad things is that he believed that an illustrator and a painter were two very different things and that they cannot be mixed. He many times wanted badly to drop illustration and devote his life to painting but needed the income illustration provided to support his family.

Billy Bones
Billy Bones | Source
Source

Early Years

Born in Needham, Massachusetts, his mother encouraged his art and by the time he was 12, he showed proficiency in watercolor. When old enough, he entered Howard Pyle’s School of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Howard Pyle, was considered the father of American illustration. Pyle stressed historical accuracy with props, costumes, dramas and actors recreating scenes to paint from life. Pyle painted exquisite detail, whereas Wyeth veered toward looser, quicker strokes and ominous shadows with moody backgrounds. He was considered a realist painter, if somewhat melodramatic in style.

Giant
Giant | Source
Knights
Knights | Source
Robin Hood
Robin Hood | Source
My kids dress-up day.
My kids dress-up day. | Source

Dress-up days

Before he was even finished with his classes at Pyle’s School of Art, Wyeth received a commission to paint a Western illustration and was encouraged by Pyle to go West to acquire direct knowledge for the scenes. In Colorado, Wyeth worked as a cowboy, visited the Navajo in Arizona, and eventually worked as a mail carrier after being robbed of all his money. He earned enough to get home. He took a second trip 2 years later, when he bought costumes of cowboy’s and Indian clothing. Later his studio boasted so many and various costumes, that his children often dressed up and enacted scenes from books. He must have been a fun dad.

When I was homeschooling my children, we already had a closet full of costumes created for the many church dramatic performances we had been in. During those homeschool years, we added a lot to the costume closet because my children loved the dress-up days. We took one day a month and each of the children would choose a character from history, science or literature to embody for that day. They had to know the character’s name, birth and death dates, what they were famous for and any other particulars it would be fun to portray. They would run to the costume closet, fighting over costume pieces and drawing on mustaches, trying on wigs, etc. For the day I had an international conglomerate of fun people in my home. We had everyone from Winston Churchill to Diego Velasquez, the Spanish painter; from John Rockefeller to Pocahontas. We got the idea from N.C. Wyeth.

The Silent Fisherman
The Silent Fisherman | Source
Preparing for Mutiny, Treasure Island
Preparing for Mutiny, Treasure Island | Source

Wyeth's children

At the age of 26, he married Carolyn Bockius of Wilmington and settled in Chadds Ford. He purchased18 acres near the historic Brandywine battlefield, and built a house and studio for his family. He was a strict but patient father who was known for not talking down to his children. He educated them at home even before homeschooling was a popular lifestyle. His children were naturally taught art as well as other subjects like science and most became artists as well. His children are Andrew Wyeth, Henriette Wyeth Hurd (married to Peter Hurd, a protégé of N.C.’s), Carolyn Wyeth, Anne Wyeth McCoy (married to John W. McCoy, another protégé of N.C.’s) and Nataniel C. Wyeth, who became an engineer for DuPont and worked on the team that invented the plastic soda bottle. I would say that homeschooling did not harm any of them in the least.

The books that he illustrated include Treasure Island (1911, which paid for his house and studio), Kidnapped (1913), Robin Hood (1917), The Last of the Mohicans(1919), Robinson Crusoe (1920), Rip Van Winkle (1921), The White company (1922), and The Yearling (1939). He also did illustrations for periodicals including Century, Harper’s Monthly, Ladies’ Home Journal, McClure’s, Outing, The Popular Magazine, and Scribner’s.

My pencil is like a fencer's foil.

— Andrew Wyeth, son of N.C. Wyeth
Blind Pew
Blind Pew | Source
The Black Spot
The Black Spot | Source

No one to mess with.

In one story I read about the artist and his short temper, he had called for another press conference because of the release of a new book. The reporters often came to his studio to get a quote and see some of the illustrations first hand. Wyeth was a large barrel-chested man, stronger than he looked. He was telling about his illustrations and the process when one reporter interrupted him to ask something unrelated. He scowled at the reporter and quietly remarked the questions would be at the end. He began again, when again, he was interrupted by the same reporter. The artist gave the reporter one more chance to be civil and flatly told him he would be dismissed if he could not wait. But the reporter didn’t feel threatened by an artist and interrupted one last time. Everyone was stunned when Wyeth marched over to him, picked him up bodily and cast him out into the snow. After shutting the door he began again, and not one dared interrupt. As I recall, Andrew told this story to illustrate that his father was no one to mess with.

Source

Did you know about N.C. Wyeth before?

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The heartache of illustrators

Wyeth loathed the commercialism upon which he became dependent, and for the rest of his life, he battled internally over his capitulation, accusing himself of having “bitched myself with the accursed success in skin-deep pictures and illustrations.” I can actually identify with this quote because I have felt the same way. As an artist I have to earn a living by working with the advertising companies and other marketing tools while hating what they often stand for. It is one of the reasons I lean more toward children’s book illustrations, because at least children’s books are more about education than marketing. Still Wyeth often felt that he was less of an artist when he couldn’t sell actual paintings but instead made most of his living in illustration. He complained of moneymen “who want to buy me piecemeal” and that “an illustration must be made practical. Not only in its dramatic statement, but it must be a thing that will adapt itself to the engravers’’ and printers’ limitations. This fact alone kills that underlying inspiration to create thought. Instead of expressing that inner feeling, you express the outward thought… or imitation of that feeling.” He was so distressed that advertising and marketing killed creativity and I agree with him.

A
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania:
Chadds Ford, PA 19317, USA

get directions

Last of the Mohicans
Last of the Mohicans | Source
Coke Poster
Coke Poster | Source

More than books and magazines

Like most artists, Wyeth had to find more than one venue in the illustration world to make a living. So he also did posters and calendars and advertisements. He painted murals of historical and allegorical subjects for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Westtown School, the First National Bank of Boston, the Hotel Roosevelt, the Franklin Savings Band, the National Geographic Society, the Wilmington Savings Fund Society, and other public and private buildings. Murals are very hard on we artists physically because of the sheer size but usually they are more liberal in the area of creativity within limits. I’m sure Wyeth found the many murals he did to be some of his more creative and artistic endeavors.

Source
Source

Bright and bold colors

I think what I like most about N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations are the great narrative qualities; the kind you think of when you think of Norman Rockwell. Also I love the dramatic lighting and bright wide range of colors. When I think of a stormy sky with orange and purple clouds, I think of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. The deep blues and bright exciting oranges; his paintings are full of color. I love the way he could put drama even in a lazy looking walk along a stream or man standing in the middle of the page. You can almost read his mind the way Wyeth adds expression not only to the man but also to the background. Oh, I want to be able to express drama like that in my illustrations. He was very versatile, painting illustrations in oil as well as watercolor.

I surrendered to a world of my imagination, re-enacting all those wonderful tales my father would read aloud to me. I became a very active reader, especially history and Shakespeare.

— Andrew Wyeth
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Source

Wyeth's tragic death

In the 1930s he restored an old captain’s house in Port Clyde, Maine, named “Eight Bells” after a Winslow Homer painting, and took the family there for summers, where he painted primarily seascapes. This is where I remember many of his son Andrew’s paintings being developed, including the most famous one, …

Wyeth’s death was in 1945, just days before what would have been his 63rd birthday. Wyeth and his grandson (Nathaniel’s son) were killed when their automobile was struck by a freight train at a railway crossing near Chadds Ford home. It seems a mystery as to why the automobile was on the tracks that day and a tragedy for the whole family. As I recall the story, Andrew had just days before had an argument with his father over a painting he was working on. It was a conflict that would never be resolved. Sometimes it is those unresolved issues that makes an artist even more introspective and in Andrew’s case he turned out a number of famous paintings to help him deal with the grief.

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Knights Fighting
Knights Fighting | Source

Societies and Landmarks

N.C. Wyeth was a member of the National Academy, the Society of Illustrators, the Philadelphia Water Color Club, the Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Chester County Art Association, and the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts. That seems like quite an accomplishment right there. I’ve been an artist for 40 years and only belong to one artist’s society. I could join more but simply can’t afford the annual dues of more than one.

N.C. Wyeth’s home and studio were designated as a National Historic landmark in 1997. Maybe someday my little apartment will be declared as a National Historic landmark and all the mice and moths will be bronzed. That will be the day!

Source
David Balfour
David Balfour | Source

Loss of a National treasure.

I realize Wyeth didn’t die in his twenties or thirties and his death wasn’t as tragic a loss as some artists who died very young. But nonetheless, he was taken from us abruptly and before he was done sharing his considerable gift. It shouldn’t have happened that way. The collective gasp the artistic community felt that day must have been heard around the world. He is gone but not forgotten.

Source

Artistic Comments Welcomed

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 months ago from Fresno CA

      Eric,

      I have to agree with you. There must be so much more to the story that we may never truly know. Still what we do know is tragic. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • profile image

      Eric 

      5 months ago

      Good bio write-up; and I agree with Wyeth that illustration and painting are two different things (having done both of them) but I believe he encompassed and accomplished both of them in his style and approach. I also think there is much more to the story of how and why his life ended the way it did...

    • Bede le Venerable profile image

      Bede 

      7 months ago from Minnesota

      Thanks Denise; happy New Year! I like the painting with the guy on the rope, going up the cliff. It has drama and nice colors. I would hang that on my wall, as well as any of his Maine seascapes, as well as others of his illustrations that don't depict too much violence.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      7 months ago from Fresno CA

      Bede,

      Well said! A couple extra helpings of sensitivity indeed! I'm so glad you enjoyed the biography of N.C. Wyeth. I truly love his work and it totally passes for "fine art" in my book. It is framable and hangable. I'd love to have one for my living room! Maybe the one with the kids on the beach and the giant in the clouds. I love the colors of that one. Which one would you pick for your home if you could have any of his paintings?

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Bede le Venerable profile image

      Bede 

      7 months ago from Minnesota

      Thanks Denise for another interesting artist’s biography. I enjoyed looking at N.C. Wyeth’s paintings as a young artist, and marvel today as then, at his artistic skills, but above all his imagination. Even though he worked mostly as an illustrator, today most of his illustrations can easily pass as “fine art.” I can relate to what you say about artists feel life deeply. Artists have been given a couple extra helpings of sensitivity, which can be both a blessing and curse. On the one hand, we can feel carried away by beauty, but also, can feel the thorns of life a bit more keenly.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      My pleasure, Jodah. Always good to pass on helpful information.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thank you Denise. I will pass that on to her. Thanks for the info about "Outsource" as well. It sounds good.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Jodah,

      You are very sweet to think of me. Finding just the right illustrator for a children's book is kind of like finding just the right fashion to wear. Some things just don't fit or aren't to your taste. You can give her my website location and see if she likes my style: http://dancinpaintbrush.com. After that, another resource for finding just the right illustrator is called Outsource.com. They help people with projects find just the right artist looking for work. I think it is a good deal and I have found some work that way before. Usually there are 15 artists or more applying for each and every job, do your friend will have lots to choose from before making a deal. Outsource also protects your identity and funds as the artist won't be paid till the customer says the job is done to their satisfaction. Thanks again for thinking of me. My website has contact information if she wants to email me directly.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Hi Denise,

      I have had a couple of enquiries lately asking if I know of an artist who illustrates children's books. I edited some children's stories for a client on "fiverr" most recently and she asked if I knew anyone.

      You are the only one I know of, but I didn't know if you would be interested or taking on new work. I know you have already been working on a book. The person interested is located in New Zealand.

      A separate enquiry was asked by another hubber as to if anyone here did that kind of work. Just thought I'd ask.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      FlourishAnyway,

      So true. I love the bold vivid colors too. He's one of my favorite illustrators. They just don't make them like him anymore. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 years ago from USA

      What a talented man and tragic death. I love the bold, vivid colors in his work.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      CorneliaMladenova,

      You are very welcome, my friend. I love reading and learning about artists so this is so easy and natural for me. And there are so many artists out there I still know very little about. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 

      2 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      Oh, his works are great and I have never heart about him. What a lapse :( I know almost nothing about American art and now I realize that it's really bad. Thank you very much for educating us, Denise! :)

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      AliciaC,

      You are so welcome. It is interesting to read about artist's lives and frustrations, I think. They had fears and doubts like anyone else. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I have heard of N.C. Wyeth before but knew virtually nothing about him before I read this hub. Thank you for sharing the information and the great illustrations. It was very interesting to learn about the artist's life and frustrations.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      justthemessenger,

      We had a timeline so that each new history, literature, or science and art person we studied went onto the timeline. That way the kids could pick someone off the timeline and playact that person for the day. My timeline people were little stick figures with colors for science and history, a little clue to their country of origin and birth and death dates. I thought it was clever. By high school the kids outgrew the timeline figures and didn't want them anymore. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 

      2 years ago from The Great Midwest

      As a history nerd of sorts, I am inspired by the way you andN.C. Wyeth used art and playtime to make history lessons come alive. I wasn't aware of him but his "giant" picture looks familiar.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Jodah,

      Isn't Giant a fabulous piece. I think that one is my favorite too. It captures the essence of childhood imagination. I think it's so sad that he thought himself less than a real artist. Thanks so much for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      purl3agony,

      Yes, you can see NC's influence in Andrew's work. I love that he taught the children all himself at home (even before homeschooling was a thing people did often) and Nathaniel became a scientist and the rest artists. Fascinating. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What a great painter and illustrator. I had never heard of N.C. Wyeth before, Denise, so thank you for introducing me to this talented man. I love the works you have included here, especially "Giant". A very thorough and enjoyable hub in the series.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      2 years ago from USA

      Wonderful hub, Denise! I love NC's work and you can definitely see his influence in Andrew's watercolors, though their style and subject matter is completely different. Thanks for sharing his story and these wonderful images!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Jackie Lynnley,

      It's true, there probably is so much more to the story that has never been shared. I imagine there were very few railway crossing guards back then too. Still it seems strange. I love the painting in the snow too. It is an illustration from Robin Hood I think. It is fascinating because it has it's own narration to it. It talks to you. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      A great day to publish artists who die too soon on the day we all wake up to hear of David Bowie's death at 69!

      What some great paintings. I could stare endlessly at a couple of them but think my favorite is the snow and tree scene with the bows and arrow hunters, if that is what they are; and that is why is is so fascinating. Maybe they aren't. They could be fleeing danger.

      The death was so tragic and senseless, how on earth with as few cars as there was back then could this happen? You just know there is much more to the story that we will never know.

      Shared!

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