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A Wyeth Family Christmas


A Wyeth Family Christmas commemorates the winter season with this whimsical display of paintings and watercolors ranging from N.C. Wyeth's popular "Ole Kris" (1925) to personal collections of handmade cards and gifts exchanged over the years. Drawn primarily from private collections, the exhibit also includes traditional Christmas related installations, decorations and toys. A special feature will be a set of classic Lionel trains from of 1930s, fully outfitted for the holiday season. This delightful show opens on Sunday, November 23 in the Wyeth Center galleries and continues through Sunday, January 11, 2004.

On display are examples of almost a century of Wyeth Christmas observations and traditions. Among them are a series of Christmas cards, the initial printed versions of paintings commissioned by the Layman's League of the Parables, which were later published in S. Parke Cadman's "The Parables of Jesus" in 1931. These cards were printed using twelve colors plus gold, their artistic quality setting a new standard in the industry.

The Wyeth family has always whole-heartedly celebrated Christmas traditions. N.C. Wyeth noted in 1918 that his family carried the illusion of St. Nicholas as far as possible, believing from his own experience as a child that "disillusionment is a myth, providing the parents can always enter into the fairy spirit of Christmas traditions and become, for a while, children themselves." N.C. himself recalls having "straddled the roof in the dark morning hours, thumping and stamping, ringing a great loop of bells down the bedroom fireplace chimney and calling out in a rumbling voice, and then quickly sliding down the ladder to take my next position inside the house by the fireplace in the big room," and noting "the dazzled faces of the children."

Years later, James Wyeth would observe, "Maybe the Wyeth's great overdoing of Christmas is because it's the one time of the year when we don't have to hide the child, hide our unbounded joy  and we can go screeching around, putting holly everywhere and hanging spiders, lots of little animals on windowsills, little men, little scenes, toys everywhere, creating this whole different world within our own room."

Andrew Wyeth sums it all up, remarking, "Christmas is to have something to celebrate." 

A favored plaything of young James was a simple toy castle made for his father Andrew by Andrew's brother Nat in 1927. This castle and accompanying toy soldiers inspired an imaginary village and a mythical population that were central to James's holiday drawings. The series of winsome, beautifully executed line drawings tells the story of the village, drawn with the sympathetic and sometimes humorous eye of the very young artist. In the earliest drawings, solitary figures go quietly about the motions of simple preparations for the holidays, arranging a bow, a sprig of holly, lighting a chandelier. As an older boy, James drew "Christmas Star," 1959, also part of the exhibition, where a young boy adds the final touch to a dazzling tree laden with ornaments, and tellingly, the sand star cookie, a Wyeth family tradition.

Particularly enchanting to James was "The Wind in the Willows," and he often imagined the characters at the holidays, humorously depicting them in true form: Mole doggedly struggling with Christmas errands and Toad in typical repose. Over time, James would draw these characters many times, giving the drawings away as holiday gifts or printing them as Christmas cards. For a drawing in this exhibition, James interprets the characters as contemporary figures participating in the preparation and celebration of Christmas, generating a family reunion that brings the fictional friends of his youth, Toad, Mole and Ratty, "home for the holidays."

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