Return of the Figure

By Jonathan Spies
September 10, 2019
N.C. Wyeth, The Duel on the Beach, 1920
N.C. Wyeth, The Duel on the Beach, 1920

“We come at last to set ourselves face to face with ourselves; expecting that in creatures made after the image of God, we are to find comeliness and completion more exquisite than in the fowls of the air and the things that pass through the paths of the sea” [John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. II, p. 119].


In 1844, John Ruskin, the foremost art critic of the English-speaking world, typified the period with remarks like this. His Modern Painters, underscored and expanded an old notion: “Man is the measure of all things” – true in the time of Protagoras, and true 2,000 years later, in Ruskin’s. The human figure animates a scene – adds scale to landscape, narrative to still-life, and life to monument. A great picture can be any of those things, too, but the human figure shouldn’t be far from the frame.


But flash forward another century, and the picture has changed  radically. By 1944, Clement Greenberg, the Ruskin of his day, was saying things like:


“The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape – not its picture – is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similar, or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself” [Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. I, p. 8].


In other words: if the picture can stand on its own two feet, who needs the human figure? Greenberg kept reviewing, and, occasionally, praising figurative art of the past, but he saw it as a dead-end for the future. Like Ruskin’s a century earlier, his position characterized the period. When the War Department, in 1946, assembled a travelling exhibition of American art to evangelize for American culture behind the Iron Curtain, the show included very little representational art, and almost no figures. The middle of the 20th century would be so dominated by the abstract, and the few major figures to include the human form are often included in the canon as the exception that proves the rule: the de Koonings, the Averys, the occasional Rauschenberg. The world of the future arrived on canvas immediately after World War II, and it was almost entirely uninhabited.


What happened in the intervening century?


A bunch of stuff, really: the rise of the photograph; a shift in art from the objective to the subjective; and a growth of a middle class that needed decoration for their new middle class homes. Dealers and collectors put their chips on abstraction, and museum’s did, too. (The very existence of the Whitney Museum of American art, weirdly, owes something to the fact that the core of its collection was figurative – but that’s a story for another day).


With these, another curious phenomena: the work previously done by fine artists still got done, but now it was done by illustrators. And they did it really well: this in the days before the motion picture, but aided by the tool of the camera. Before the photo magazine (so commonplace today that it’s odd to consider Life and Time had to be invented), but fueled by a ravenous appetite to fill pages. Before the population of the U.S. dwelt mostly in cities, but connected by a robust postal service and home delivery catalogs that made the America a genuinely coast-to-coast readership. Hindsight has called this the Golden Age of Illustration, and it’s easy to see why: Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker—Norman Rockwell is today best known of this bunch, but he’s really just the tail of the beast: in the late 19th century and early 20th, all these artists were household names. The generation that followed looked at them, as Rockwell did, as heroes.


And that’s just the ‘story’ magazines-scrubbers, Harper’s, Collier’s, and the many, many pulps. Newspapers at the time were just as likely to run drawings as photographs. The gang of newspaper illustrators coming out of Philadelphia in the 1890s came to define the early 20th-century style of painting. The gritty urban realism of Everett ShinnGeorge BellowsWilliam Glackens and Robert Henri would be known as the Ashcan School.


In 1913, there was an explosion of modernism: a bang that piqued painters and irked presidents: the 1913 armory show. It was the real debut of abstraction in America, with Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, all on view.


But if something fascinating began in 1913, what was going on right up to that explosion didn’t immediately cease. All those activities that had been the province of these painters—illustration, portraiture, unflinching looks at the real world and gauzy fantasies—all remained their province. The modernists got abstraction, subjectivity, and the illustrators got everything else!


It was a tidy divorce by that metric, but not all the artists saw it that way. Glackens and Shinn very self-consciously pushed their work into realms that they considered unassailably artful: French revival modes that were so distant from illustration that they could escape the growing stain of the term.


N.C. Wyeth was, by the time of the Armory Show, was America’s favorite illustrator. He was commercially successful from a young age and throughout his career, winning major commissions throughout the Depression. When many of his colleagues joined the WPA to make murals in post offices, Wyeth was getting paid to paint bank lobbies. But more than perhaps anyone, Wyeth embodied the schism between these two camps. He wrote his father,


“I am going to drop illustration. But before, of course, I shall have made all arrangements for a livelihood” (emphasis Wyeth’s).


He went on to describe these arrangements: teach school a few days a week; “living at home and sharing expenses, which of course will make it astonishingly cheaper for [them] to live than it does now” [Betsy James Wyeth (ed.), The Wyeths: The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, (1971), p. 293].


Wyeth wrote this in 1909. He wasn’t able to ever escape illustration – he was working on several compositions for publications even at the time of his death in 1945. But the fissure between ‘Art’ and lowly illustration, in his own head, tormented him for his entire career.


“I know this is so – and all the passive talk about being content with the really-noble-art-of-illustrations-if-you-are-doing-your-best, etc., etc., is emphatically wrong, when day in and day out I feel those insufferable pangs of yearning to express my own life as it is in this beautiful home and these hills . . . One knows then that the divine brush must speak, the one that knows no tricks or receipts, the one that from sheer knowledge can profoundly grasp the truth of the scene with an innocent eye, untainted, undisturbed by the meddling property-man attitude of the dramatic or poetic illustrator!” (emphasis Wyeth’s)[p. 459.].


Wyeth separated out the canvases that were his own, as an artist, and bitterly lamented, for a few years, his years as student to Howard Pyle. And as he struggled, his own children began to win accolades as fine artists themselves. N.C.’s son Andrew debuted a solo exhibition of watercolors, which promptly sold out—and only a few years later he would paint the masterpiece, Christina’s World, that would rapidly join the collection of the Museum of Modern Art—hallowed gates that never opened for N.C.


There’s something telling about his continued work as an illustrator. Always a genius for narrative and visual drama, N.C. moved more deeply into his work over time, producing illustrations that elevated the form. There’s a really good reason he was America’s favorite: he was extraordinarily talented, but he also put so much more into his work than many of his contemporaries. In certain cases, he was so pleased with illustrations that replicated his work onto new compositions, solely to be admired as easel paintings — he treated his commercial work as almost a sketch for his fine art work.


And about that “Fine Art”: his works outside commercial illustration are quieter, more thoughtful, more pictorially adventurous – but they’re not Mondrian. His practice remained observational, and the techniques he used weren’t much different from those he bent to his illustration work. So if there was a qualitative difference in his head, on the canvas it was one of degrees.


N.C. Wyeth represents the schism: the illustrator in him hews to the traditional functions of the artist, while the artist inside “feels insufferable pangs of yearning to express” a subjective truth.


He also represents a resolution to that schism—one that has since closed. After Abstract Expressionism gave way to Minimalism, Pop Art and Op Art and The Pictures Generations: Greenberg’s notion that a picture can’t reach outside itself has been utterly dismantled in the past few decades. There’s an essential question soaked deep into Greenberg’s concern that hearkens back to Ruskin as well: What is the appropriate subject for a painting? What are paintings supposed to be about?


Ruskin wrestled with the question, and Greenberg too. Modern Painters went through five volumes, and Ruskin continued to revise these through the 1880s. Greenberg found something to like even in Pop Art. For his part, N.C. Wyeth may have reached as satisfying a conclusion as any. There’s art – drama, comedy, beauty, and sorrow, within his paintings, whether he classed them as illustration or fine art. All are beautifully painted, and, with the hindsight across the vista of the 20th century, it seems hardly to matter whether the subject is a pirate ship or his front yard. The market has come to the same conclusion: an illustration for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post has sold for close to $50,000,000.


Just before his death, N.C. wrote to his son Andrew, to guide him on his own fraught path:


“The greats in all arts have been primarily romanticists and realists (the two cannot be separated). They interpreted life as they saw it, but, “through every line’s being” soaked in the consciousness of an object, one is bound to feel, beside life as it is, the life that ought to be, and it is that that captivates us! All great painting is something that enriches and enhances life, something that makes it higher, wider, and deeper” [February 16, 1944, N.C. Wyeth to Andrew Wyeth].

–Jonathan Spies