Farnsworth Art Museum
The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Farnsworth Art Museum.
One Nation: Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N.C. and James Wyeth
By Lauren Raye Smith, Conservator/Assistant Curator, Wyeth Center
The history of America in the 20th century, full of innocence and deceit, promise and disappointment, has been witnessed and chronicled by two members of the most famous family of artists in America, the Wyeths. N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) was the most prominent illustrator of his day. In addition to illustrating classic novels and magazine articles, N. C. was called on by the U. S. Government and military agencies to create images that would stir the hearts of his fellow Americans with a powerful emotion, patriotism. As the century aged and matured, however, so did the American public. Events conspired to strip the public of their innocence, and words like "Vietnam" and "Watergate" became heavily laden with new meaning. What it meant to be "patriotic" was no longer clear. James Wyeth (b. 1946), the grandson of N. C. Wyeth, came of age in the 1960's, perhaps one of the most tumultuous decades of this century. He has witnessed, and more importantly, recorded artistically many of the events and people that have shaped this new, more informed American public. This exhibition and catalog bring together a collection of the "political" works of these two artists in an exploration of our nation, a nation founded by both "patriots" and "pirates."
N. C. Wyeth, himself a founding father of a great artistic legacy, established his reputation as the premier illustrator of the country. From the beginning of his career, he was determined to paint American subjects in a fresh and wholly American way, not to be swayed or influenced by past European masters. He was passionately interested in the events and people that established our country, and delighted in depicting events such as Washington at Yorktown and Lincoln giving his second inaugural speech. He was a master at projecting himself into the scenes he was painting, giving them a veracity that few others could accomplish. He became sought after for his quintessentially American illustrations. There is romanticism and idealism to most of his works, the heroes are strong and virile and the flags wave majestically, victory is always at hand. His images echo the great speeches of Wilson, Churchill, and Roosevelt, the pictorial equivalents of "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."
Contrasting with the confident message of N. C. Wyeth is the sense of doubt visible in the eyes of President Kennedy as depicted by James Wyeth. He did not deify the slain president, on the contrary making him seem almost too human. As the media has expanded its coverage and power in the later part of this century, the American public has been given more information about its leaders, particularly their foibles, inconsistencies, and idiosyncrasies. The press exposed the Bay of Pigs operation months before the D-Day, resulting in the fact that the public was more informed about it than many of the participants. The Vietnam War became our first opportunity to witness the carnage of war each night on the evening news. We were also able to watch the fall of a President in the 1970's, and witness and record the lies he told along the way. This is the Washington James has been a part of and he has explored and exposed its complexities over the years with a toughness and reality that comes from knowledge.
Consider the two artists' depictions of Thomas Jefferson. N. C.'s Jefferson is a solemn thinker, working late into the night on a speech, putting great thoughts to paper in the glow of candlelight. James takes a less scholarly view of the man, and there is haughtiness in the Thomas Jefferson from James's brush. In the two portraits he has strong features, piercing blue eyes, and a determined expression. "Dome Room" also shows Jefferson as confident, a small smile on his lips as he gazes out the window. His mistress Sally Hemings lingers in the doorway, a small uncertain figure, just leaving or arriving, but afraid to disturb the master either way. This is not the pensive, cerebral Jefferson of N. C., but Jefferson the man, the id evident.
Identical media can have drastically different results in the hands of these artists as well. Abraham Lincoln basks in the glow of the flag as he prepares to give his second inaugural speech in the small pencil study by N. C. He appears as a king, crowned in the glory of the nation, large billowy clouds surrounding him as he turns his face to the sky. James uses his pencil line to a far different effect. With it he describes the worry lines in the forehead of Colson as he testifies, the severity and intensity in the face of Haldeman, and the disbelief in the eyes of Judge Sirica as further evidence is revealed implicating the hallowed office of the presidency.
The White House appears in the work of N. C. and James in very different incarnations. "Building the First White House" by N. C. shows George Washington in consultation with James Hoban, discussing the progress of the building that will become the home and office of the leader of the nation. Well-dressed bystanders gaze in awe while workers study plans intently or haul building materials to the site. The building itself, bearing a resemblance to the Parthenon, is glowing in the spotlight of the sun evoking the promise of the new democracy. The White House in the work of James Wyeth is a quieter place. The grandeur of leading the nation diminished, the White House, though still majestic, is not on the scale of N. C.'s portrayal. In "Christmas Eve at the White House" a single light glows in the cool purple night, an indication that someone is awake. This small light and the wreath that goes nearly unnoticed hanging from the balcony lends an air of warmth to the home.
The spirit of manifest destiny has continued into this century and man has reached further and further in search of new territory. In 1926, Commander Richard E. Byrd flew over the North Pole for the first time. To commemorate this flight, N. C. was commissioned to paint a mural for the National Geographic Society. In typical N. C. style, he was not content to paint the scene as everyone associated with the expedition described it, as an unremarkable day. He had to elevate the picture, to make the drama of the image befitting the historical significance of the flight. The plane cuts a dark arrow through the gloriously colorful sky; aqua blue water snakes its way around white polar caps. ("Through Pathless Skies" is not illustrated) This exploration into uncharted territory can be compared to the space race of the late 1960's and early 1970's. A group of artists, including James Wyeth, was invited to participate in a program called "Eyewitness to Space" sponsored by NASA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Given free reign of the NASA facilities during the momentous Apollo blast off and other events, James commonly chose scenes that leaned towards the ironic rather than the breathtaking, a rocket booster on its side being towed to the launch pad; a launch pad paired with an old red bicycle. He was not completely above awe however, as is evidenced by the starburst blastoff of "T-minus Three Hours Thirty Minutes and Counting," an image N. C. would have savored for its drama and intensity.
An artist has a great power, the ability to create images that will influence society's future perception of events. In this group of works by N. C. and James Wyeth we have the unique ability to trace a century of changes and challenges of our nation through a single family, and speculate on how their respective time periods may have influenced their work. With this exhibition we are not attempting to define the "patriots" or the "pirates," but to encourage that discussion, or perhaps debate, among the viewers. One nation: these two words compel most Americans to complete the phrase learned as schoolchildren, standing, hands over hearts, facing the American flag, "under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Whether it is said with feeling or simply a by rote performance, it enters the subconscious, perhaps a child's first brush with "patriotism," this pledge of allegiance to our United States. If this loyalty, instilled in youth, were tested later in life, however, would most Americans be proven "patriots?" Or would they be exposed as "pirates?" And who would decide which was which?
About the author:
Lauren Raye Smith is the conservator and assistant curator for the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center in Rockland, Maine, and the organizer of the "One Nation" exhibition, which traveled from the Farnsworth to the Russell Rotunda, Washington D. C. from January 14 through January 21, 2001, New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britian, CT from February 15 through April 30, 2001, Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA from June 2 through September 3, 2001 and finally to the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL from October 11, 2001 through January 6, 2002. This essay was the introduction to the exhibition catalog, published in 2000 by Bulfinch Press.
Please see our related article One Nation: Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N.C. Wyeth and James Wyeth (8/12/00).
Read more about the Farnsworth Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
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