At some point in the previous century, I read Walden, which assures us that “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.” This precedes Thoreau’s famous assertion that “No man ever followed his genius till it misled him.” I’ve wondered about this ever since. Do the misled fail to follow their genius rightly? Or is Thoreau wrong, and the true road does sometimes lead off a cliff? Take, for instance, “N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives,” in which the artist is under examination for good or ill at the Portland Museum of Art.
Wyeth (1882–1945) occupies a place in American illustration akin to Michelangelo’s in Western art as a whole. Nobody of his talents walks among us today. Even if someone did, the world that produced him is gone—the milieu, the training, the patrons, and the audience. His works synthesize American Belle Époque painting into the problem of storytelling, carried out in the spirit of doing one’s utmost by the client. A 1919 endpaper for The Last of the Mohicans depicts Chingachgook and Uncas canoeing with Natty Bumppo down a foggy river. Sky and water combine into a singular atmosphere of steel. Each man scans a different direction for dangers. Silvery birch saplings elegantly frame the braves, to whom Wyeth draws attention by adorning them with touches of red in the midst of a gray composition. Within the limitations of the form and the period, he has executed it with supreme elegance.
Working consistently at this level, Wyeth became the very embodiment of the field, but he wanted history to remember him as a fine artist. While art sometimes demands such upheavals, they require a particular consciousness of the limitations of one’s art without scorn for its virtues. It is a hard thing to get right.
Wyeth correctly identified modernism as the ascendant impulse in American art. A different man, at a different stage of life, would have spent a few years in Paris or New York. But by the 1920s, when modernist elements began to appear in his easel paintings, Wyeth had five lively teenagers in the house. He felt no yearning for the city anyway. A canvas from 1925, Harbor at Herring Gut, is in many ways a lovely picture. A Maine seascape crowded with gulls, piers, shacks, and boats appears in a compressed composition, a bit fauvist and a bit cubist with the intensity typically associated with both turned down to cooler New England levels. But Wyeth’s works over the next fourteen years drifted between styles explored to better effect by other Americans—Edward Hopper, Marguerite Zorach, and Charles Burchfield most notably—without ever striking a vein rich enough to mine. All the while his depression worsened. Typical of the time was Spring—1918 (1936), portraying a morose couple in a chilly field, in which even the application of paint seems listless.
In illustration, the use of your materials follows logically from your conception of the picture. In fine art, your conception of a picture follows intuitively from the use of your materials. Minus an illustration assignment, oil paint was not telling Wyeth to do any particular thing, nor stop. The problem plagued him until 1939, when he changed his materials, switching over to egg tempera.
Wyeth learned the medium from a former pupil, Peter Hurd. Hurd also taught the method to Andrew Wyeth, who used it with great success in the very realm that continued to deny his father entry. It must have been a humbling discovery for the elder Wyeth to find that he could only make viable fine art by giving up on his modernist ambitions and painting in a manner resembling his son’s. Nevertheless, Dark Harbor Fishermen (1943) is a commanding work. Boaters sidle up on one another. One of the craft is full of fish that glimmer against the night-time waters. A fisherman scoops them into a basket held by his colleague as an open-mouthed gull sweeps in from the side like a bird of prey. Given another decade or two to work like this, how might Wyeth’s path have turned out? Would he have found a way to a wholly original, full-force voice, not only within American painting, but the Wyeth clan itself? We’ll never know, because in 1945 the car he was driving was clobbered by a train.
This is the buried story here: how a great illustrator tried to reinvent himself as a proper painter, broke through by falling down the side of the creative impasse that he had been scaling for a couple of frustrating decades, and got cut off just as he was starting to get somewhere. But it’s not the story that the curator wants to tell. Wall labels throughout the exhibition are divided in two. On the left reads the usual wall-label stuff. The right sides have been given over to commentary from people who seem never to have thought about Wyeth until prompted. On the Mohicans endpaper, one of them opines, “Here is a white man standing next to two subservient Native Americans . . . the man standing in the boat with the gun, surveying the land that he feels is his, that he feels he has taken and it belongs to him now. It may be called The Last of the Mohicans but it’s not about them at all. It’s about taming and conquering.” Actually, in James Fenimore Cooper’s story, the man with the gun put himself in mortal danger to protect his two Native friends, but why let total ignorance of the subject interfere with projections of racism?
Speaking of projections, another commenter says that a sign depicted in the lower right corner of the Herring Gut seascape “tell[s] people where they are, but the sign doesn’t say Pesamkuk. There is no trace of the indigenous people here. It was reimagnined in white supremacy.” That “sign” is the window on the side of a house and it “says” some daubs of mauve and violet.
Most dismaying are the remarks on Dark Harbor Fishermen. “When you see an illustration, you place yourself in it. Are you going to be a seagull? Or the man shoveling the fish? . . . Are you going to identify yourself as a strong white man? Identifying with a figure like that is self-destructive because the ideas are detrimental to you if you’re a black person or a woman. Yet those are the figures you’re given to identify with.” Welcome to contemporary progressivism, where you will injure yourself if you’re black and identify with a white person in a picture, but if you want to pretend that you’re an opportunistic waterfowl, go right ahead.
No doubt, someone thought of these remarks as “new perspectives” on the artist, but they are perspectives from which he is barely in view. I’m no closer to deciding whether genius might mislead its possessor. But this exhibition, in its disdain to identify with N. C. Wyeth, shows that incuriosity and self-righteousness will mislead you every time.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4, on page 52
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