PORTLAND, Maine – The name N.C. Wyeth conjures the image of an extraordinary American illustrator and the patriarch of a renowned artist family—but what do we really know about N.C. Wyeth?
Opening Oct. 4, this first major retrospective of his work in a generation assesses Wyeth’s life and career well beyond his fame as an illustrator, examining the complex nature of his artistry, repositioning him in the context of art history and providing new entry points into his life and work—offering newcomers, lifelong admirers and experienced scholars alike a more profound appreciation for this foundational figure in American art.
Curated by Christine B. Podmaniczky (Brandywine River Museum of Art) and Jessica May (Portland Museum of Art), “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” brings together more than 45 works from throughout Wyeth’s career, including the illustrations that loom prominently in our collective imagination. The exhibition goes further, however, exploring the totality of his practice through new examinations of his common themes as well as his eye for environmental detail across all media. The result is a repositioning of an artist in the broader context of early-20th-century American art for the first time.
Born in 1882, Newell Convers Wyeth’s life and career spanned America’s transformation from a rural, agrarian society reconciling post-Civil War reconstruction to an urban, industrial one hurtling toward the atomic age. Indeed, the six decades of Wyeth’s life coincided with one of the most rapidly changing times in human history. Through it all, the artist remained inspired by traditional modes of art-making, returning to nostalgia-tinged depictions of white American culture even as trends in the art world bent increasingly toward Modernism.
Although that was the world he found himself in late in life, he first received artistic training in an entirely different era of American art history. Influenced heavily by artists such as Frederic Remington—whose work, in part, inspired him to take Western excursions early in his career to try his hand at painting depictions of the American frontier—Winslow Homer, and his personal mentor Pyle, Wyeth grew to become a highly in-demand illustrator, contributing definitive imagery to novels such as Treasure Island, his breakout hit, and The Last of the Mohicans. The PMA is fortunate to present four paintings from Treasure Island in this exhibition, accompanied by fascinating insights into how Wyeth imbued these narrative works with his personal emotions as well as subtext about the modernizing world.
Wyeth’s life and career is far more complicated than that of the grandfatherly storybook illustrator, and this exhibition considers the full range of his practice, inviting audiences to reconsider the artist himself. In a sense, N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives presents Wyeth to 21st-century audiences for the first time.