NC Wyeth on the Big Screen

By Jonathan Spies
October 26, 2019
N.C. Wyeth, Massasoit, c. 1945
N.C. Wyeth, Massasoit, c. 1945

Newell Convers Wyeth was fifteen years old when, in 1897, he declared his intentions to pursue a career as an artist. His father insisted he choose a vocation more useful than the “shiftless, almost criminal” artist, and suggested that manual farm labor in Vermont might disabuse his son of “this artist nonsense out of his head” [The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945 by N.C. Wyeth, Betsy James Wyeth (ed.), (1971), p. 33]. His father may have thought the young man was living a fantasy, but if so, the young fantasist did not live his imaginative life through story-books. His biographer noted that Robert Louis Stevenson and James Fenimore Cooper, the boys’ adventure primers of the day, were unknown to the young N.C., who spent his playtime rehearsing battles with his playmates—and, increasingly, making art.


Both his determination and his active imagination were soon to pay off, however. Wyeth’s The Bronco Buster graced the cover of the February 21, 1903 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, a major coup for the young painter. This was arrival at the only destination that mattered for a young illustrator. While this set his stars in line to become America’s favorite illustrator, he took a detour on the way, first submitting to the immersive education of the reigning king of illustration, Howard Pyle. A decade under Pyle’s influence led to years of struggle to get out from under his shadow, but it also insured the passing of the torch.


By 1906, S. S. McClure told Pyle that N.C. Wyeth was “the only man in the United States that can do the work McClure’s Magazine wants” [Betsy James Wyeth, p. 145]. Wyeth remarked: “That sounds preposterous, don’t it?” [Betsy James Wyeth, p. 145], but the truth was that his natural talents had been augmented by hard work and Pyle’s unimpeachable stamp of approval.


Proof that the passage was complete came in 1911, with two events that seemed to mend a frayed relationship between Wyeth and Pyle. First, Wyeth was commissioned to produce an “elaborate edition” of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s book about life on a pirate island. Wyeth took the job and with its cash advance and a mortgage, he bought the land that would become the family estate at Chadds Ford. “I’m totally satisfied,” he remarked, “that this is the little corner of the world wherein I shall work out my destiny” [Betsy James Wyeth, p. 195]. Wyeth reached a peace with Pyle in the same year, just when the elder illustrator died. Whatever rancor existed between them was resolved, and Wyeth was outspoken in his gratitude to Pyle from 1911 on.


Treasure Island changed Wyeth’s life. It was commercially well received, and turned Wyeth into the go-to man for book commissions. The staying power of this classic children’s book cannot be overstated. While the Saturday Evening Post cover is a position of great prestige, it lacks the many-generational impact that Treasure Island continues to have. In 2019, Jeffrey Brown remarked on the PBS News Hour:


“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” [Transcript of the PBS News Hour segment, aired 8/12/19, 6:15 PM].


The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:


“My first encounter with N.C. Wyeth came when I was about 10 and one of my aunts gave me hand-me-down copies of the big, black-bound Scribner Classic editions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island” [Peter Crimmins, “Escaping pirates: Wyeth artistic patriarch gets a retrospective,” June 27, 2019].


The Washington Post:


“I grew up with Wyeth’s book illustrations, and I remember devouring them at my grandparents’ house, losing myself in their tales of adventure and loving every minute of them. My mental pictures of the characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island are all derived from Wyeth’s masterful images, and this exhibition includes several of them” [Philip Kennicott, “N.C. Wyeth painted the world full of beauty, resilience and adventure. And full of white people.”].


From this success, Wyeth was able to win commissions for Murals, beginning in 1912, with murals on Native American subjects. This vaulted him to win the commission for illustrated editions of James Fennimore Cooper’s novels—first The Last of the Mohicans, in 1919, followed by The Deerslayer, in 1925. These massive undertakings produced some of the most dramatic images of Wyeth’s career, and if he is better known for anything other than Treasure Island, it is his pictures of Cooper’s characters. The slipcase to N. C. Wyeth’s catalogue raisonné is wrapped with an illustration from Last of the Mohicans. More than anything, people remember Wyeth’s work as cinematic, and it is a testament to this that his work so influenced Michael Mann in his 1992 film based on the book:


“N. C. Wyeth!” Mann exclaimed when he recently told me about his most galvanizing influences. “That’s what got me!” [Michael Sragow, “Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans,” in The Moviegoer, January 27, 2016].


It got Wyeth, too: he returned to imagery of Cooper’s world of Native Americans in canoes and early European settlers throughout his entire career—right up to the end of his life in 1945. The present work was executed, certainly a study for an unrealized major painting, not long before his death. The subject is Massasoit (c. 1581 – 1661), a native to the Rhode Island area. He helped forge political peace with William Bradford and other early New England settlers. The subject is new in Wyeth’s oeuvre, but the composition is not: it draws heavily from the poses and positions of earlier works like the 1919 painting for the dust jacket of Last of the Mohicans. While the image of Cooper’s novel shows the settler standing above two natives, paddling dutifully, this late masterpiece features the peace-making Native American, standing, central in his narrative. Decades of movies have made it difficult to see Wyeth’s pictures without thinking of them as “cinematic.” When we remember that the drama and motion of Wyeth’s work predates modern cinema, we realize that the influence runs the other way: Wyeth wasn’t cinematic; movies are Wyethian.