Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth (1882-1945) was born in Needham, Massachusetts, the oldest of four brothers. He is said to have inherited his artistic talent and literary appreciation from his mother, who knew both Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At the age of 21, Wyeth received one of his earliest commissions as an illustrator — what would be a bucking bronco for the Saturday Evening Post — and set out for the American West. He travelled to Colorado and New Mexico where he immersed himself in the raw environment, developing a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the landscape and its people.
He spent months at a time on different cattle ranches, learning the lifeblood of the West. When his money was stolen, he picked up work with the post office to pay for his way back to the East Coast.
His commitment to the optimistic idea of manifest destiny — a belief that white Americans were divinely ordained to settle the entire continent of North America, which was widespread in post-Civil War America — and the artefacts he collected from his travels formed the bedrock of his painstakingly detailed depictions.
His commitment to his subject matter was equally striking, as evidenced by the remarkable illustrations he produced for Scribner Classics, which grace the pages of Treasure Island, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, among many others. Many of his more illustrative works achieve their full potential when paired with the intended narrative of a novel.
N.C. completed more than 100 illustrative projects, including commissions for advertisers such as Coca-Cola and Lucky Strike cigarettes. As a painter, he experimented throughout his career, with the American Impressionism of the New Hope Group through to American regional realism, honing a mastery of light and a distinct style that would ultimately set his work apart from so many others.
He fostered a creative household that nurtured numerous talented painters — including not only his son Andrew Wyeth, but also his daughters Henriette Wyeth Hurd and Carolyn Wyeth.
Whether in the impressionist style or the marked detail of his realist work, light becomes a tool to express more than merely the majesty of a landscape or the finite detail in a window pane. It evokes what is otherworldly, and asks the viewer to contemplate more, beyond the boundaries of the work.
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) possessed the same artistic fervour as his father, famously learning to draw before he could read. His realist works are instantly recognisable for their depictions of an overwhelming absence — a seemingly innocuous portrait of the mundane is charged with the sense of ‘what might happen’, or ‘what has just happened’.
As a young boy, Andrew worked alongside his father on some of his illustrations, honing a skill that would become iconic to the Brandywine School tradition of painters who worked in rural areas of Delaware and Pennsylvania, portraying its people, animals, and landscape. Wyeth was so good that by the age of 19 he was given his first exhibition in Philadelphia. Just a year later at the age of 20, Macbeth Gallery in New York displayed a collection of his watercolours. The show sold out entirely.
His reputation continued to grow, and at the age of 26 he was included in the MoMA exhibition, Americans 1943: Realists and Magic-Realists.
Wyeth’s style was traditional: he was inspired by Winslow Homer and the Victorian age of narrative painting, depicting an America of hunters, farmers and country folk. It was a highly evocative vision that captured the essence of old frontier values; the loneliness of the labourer’s existence; his battle with nature and will to survive.
The rise of the Abstract Expressionists, with their seeming rejection of middle-class values and ideals, caused concern among conservative Americans. While the critics championed revolutionaries like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the American public were more enamoured with Wyeth’s brand of realism, exemplified in his celebrated Christina’s World (1948).
Many of Wyeth’s works exuded a radical depiction of sexuality. Over the course of 15 years, he made some 240 paintings and drawings of Helga Testorf, a care-giver for an elderly neighbouring farmer. He told no one about the model he often depicted nude, including his wife, Betsy.
Blessed with the same talent as his father and grandfather, Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946) immersed himself in his art at a young age, opting to study under his aunt, Carolyn Wyeth. His father and aunt had both been encouraged to master drawing as their entry into the studio arts, and Jamie followed the same path.
His skills in portraiture attracted the attention of the Kennedy family, who asked the then 20-year-old to paint an official portrait of John F. Kennedy for the White House. He turned down that commission, but agreed to paint an unofficial portrait. That posthumous work is now held by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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While his technique differs from his renowned artistic ancestors, their influence is undeniable. The striking palette and narrative quality of Jamie Wyeth’s work is reminiscent of his grandfather’s dynamic illustrations, while the haunting realism echoes the work of his father, Andrew.
‘The terrible danger with realism is simply painting to make things look real. That’s not what painting is about,’ Wyeth said in an interview. ‘My passion is to go as deep within the visual structure of an object or person as one possibly can. It just so happens in the final work I don’t abstract it.’