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Not All is Quiet in the Countryside: The Life of N.C. Wyeth

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Mommy Dearest

N.C. Wyeth, or Newell Convers Wyeth, was born in October of 1882 in Massachusetts to Newell and Henriette Wyeth. To understand the complicated man that N.C. became it’s important to know his mother as well, the woman who shaped him.

N.C.’s life-long depressive moods and self-doubt were inherited from his often overly involved mother. Henriette not only experienced depression herself but she remained haunted throughout her life after a terrible accident involving an episode of her depression. When she was a young girl of 8 years old her baby brother died. The child’s death was not reported until four months later and the notation was buried amongst the older records, away from anyone’s notice. The cause cited was “dropsy,” though dropsy was often used when doctor’s weren’t certain of the real cause or when the circumstances were mysterious.

Her family believed that she had lost control of the baby carriage which resulted in Rudolph’s drowning, she was prone to histrionic fits and also badly wanted a sister, not another brother. Later she wrote letters mentioning her “baby nightmares” and fears that she might physically harm her grandsons. Whatever really happened, Henriette was traumatized by the death for the rest of her life. She was prone to sudden mood swings, coddling and babying N.C. then abruptly distancing herself from him, criticizing small imperfections she observed in him.

N.C. Wyeth House

Henriette believed her depression was “homesickness” even though she never really left home and lived next to her parents all her life. She fixated on the absence of a baby girl in her life, believing a daughter would soothe her sense of isolation. When no baby girl arrived, Henriette took to dressing her youngest son as a girl for as long as she could. She encouraged her sons to feel the same “homesickness” and tempestuous emotions that she experienced. It brought them closer together she believed.

N.C. Wyeth House

An Early Talent

N.C. took to art early on in life, a talent his mother encouraged even though his distant father was wary of “artist” as a viable profession. He insisted N.C. attend a technical school to learn more useful skills. N.C. concentrated on drafting at first but with the help of his mother transferred to art school.

In 1902, when N.C. was 20 years old, two friends told him about one of the most famous illustrators in America, Howard Pyle. Better news: Pyle had his own art school in Wilmington, Delaware (we saw Pyle’s summer school which the Wyeths painted at in an earlier post, here). N.C.’s raw talent and eagerness to learn impressed Pyle and he took him on as a student. N.C. quickly became Pyle’s favorite student and within five months an N.C. Wyeth illustration landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

N.C. Wyeth House

Painting from your own experiences was a sentiment Pyle instilled in N.C. And so, as western illustrations became popular, he headed West to experience the land of cowboys. N.C. worked for a time on the Pony Express (where he was robbed) and on a cattle ranch. Before he left for the West though, he had become enamored with a local girl from Wilmington, Delaware: Carolyn (Carol) Bockius. He thought of her constantly.

N.C. Wyeth House

N.C. Wyeth House

Secret Love

He had kept their relationship, Carol’s existence and of course their engagement from his mother for a year. Finally, when they were ready to marry N.C. shared his intentions with his mother, burying the news at the end of a long letter. Of course, this did not stop Henriette from noticing or obsessing over the news. She became angry and froze her son out, then cleared her mantlepiece of family pictures only to hang a large picture of baby N.C. up. She told him she “must get him back in that form.” When she finally did accept Carol’s role in her son’s life she deemed her starved and too skinny, attempting to force-feed her milk. She was lashing out for some control over her son’s more independent life.

But the West had freed N.C. of his mother’s grip and in 1906 he married Carol. After city dwelling the Wyeths moved to the countryside (Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania – yes, we’re on state lines around here) right alongside of the Brandywine Creek. N.C. said his favorite view was from his front porch surrounded by sycamore trees, rolling hills and the green countryside.

N.C. Wyeth House

Their move to the countryside, and the building of their house and his studio which N.C. designed, was funded by his latest commission: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It would be life-changing. His illustration work for Treasure Island became known as some of the most important illustration work in American Art…and if you think you haven’t seen them you might just not have noticed (you can see them here). Their new home would be the perfect place to raise their five talented children.

Carol and N.C.’s first child died in infancy but they would go on to have three girls and two boys. Their son Andy was famously a painter as well (and so was Andrew’s son Jamie who left school after sixth grade to become a painter). Their daughter Carolyn became an artist and taught in his studio, her most famous student being Jamie. Their daughter, Henriette, married one of her father’s students, the artist Peter Hurd who did the official portrait of President Lyndon Johnson, and was herself an artist. Their other daughter Ann also married one of her father’s students and was an accomplished piano player and composer. Nathaniel was their only child to attend college and pursue the sciences instead of art, he referred to himself as “the other Wyeth.” He invented the plastic your soda bottle is made of as an engineer for the DuPont Company.

N.C. and Family

The Wyeths: Nathaniel, Henriette, Ann, Mrs. N.C. Wyeth, Carolyn and N.C. Wyeth, holding young Andrew, circa 1919, source.

N.C. Wyeth House

Fine Art Is the Only Art

N.C.’s illustrations were not only beautiful but offered a fresh perspective. His ideas came from filling in details of moments left unsaid by the author. A popular example is Jim Hawkins Leaves Home (you can see it here); the text simply says that “Jim leaves home” but N.C. dreamed up the full scene including his mother and poured emotion into it, then he painted it. His technique would become immensely popular and make him quite successful.

Many more commissions rolled in after Treasure IslandThe Last of the Mohicans, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, Rip Van Winkle, The Boy’s King Arthur, etc. Illustration paid the bills for the large family but required a relentless schedule from N.C.. To top it off,  illustration didn’t satisfy N.C. Not so secretly he wanted to be known as a fine art painter. He had rubbed elbows with everyone from Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald to movie star Mary Pickford and Teddy Roosevelt but celebrity wasn’t what N.C. was after. Illustration was looked down on as a less serious art form than painting. And N.C. didn’t fight this stereotype, he subscribed to it as well.

N.C. Wyeth House

So when he became known for his painting too he took it a step further: immense murals. He expanded the studio to include room for the massive canvases he now painted on. Unfortunately his first few murals which which displayed in hotels have been destroyed but his many murals painted after that for banks and schools have survived.

*N.C. used all of his children as models and his wife too. His paintings of Abraham Lincoln actually portray his wife’s hands, who modeled for him.

In 1921, after his nostalgia became too strong, N.C. moved his family back to Massachusetts. It was a disaster. The rural area had been transformed into a commuter town and the grassy landscapes with old farms now housed large summer estates of the wealthy. N.C. felt anything but inspired by his old town. The rest of the family felt just as unsettled and within two years they returned to Chadds Ford.

N.C. Wyeth House

N.C. Wyeth House

Rumor Mill

In October of 1945 a train from the city rolled through Chadds Ford. Reports varied whether it was a freight, milk, mail or passenger train. As it passed through the engineer sounded his whistle, there was a train on the tracks up ahead. But it didn’t move and it was too late to stop. The train crushed into the car, dragged it down the tracks then derailed. No one on the train was injured but both N.C. Wyeths were dead.

For in the car was N.C. and his grandson named for him. N.C. was 62 years old, his birthday was a few days away. Little N.C. was a month shy of 4 years old. No one was ever sure what happened to cause the accident. Did the car stall or become stuck? Why were they still in it? Had he had a heart attack or become blinded by the sun? The coroner ruled N.C. had died of a fractured skull and shock and that it was officially an accident.

But that didn’t stop gossip from spreading. Dark rumors that the crash was no accident but the result of N.C.’s life-long depression and self-doubt emerged. Had it really been suicide? Then there were the accusations that his grandson in the car was his love child with daughter-in-law, Caroline.

N.C. Wyeth House

The suicide theory was echoed from his mother’s suicide attempt in 1925 and later reemerged in 1954 when his brother committed suicide by driving his car head-on into a road paving roller; his depression stemmed from closeted homosexuality during an era when it was viewed with heavy guilt. After suffering from nervous breakdowns and several previous suicide attempts this one was successful, he died instantaneously.

It’s not likely that N.C.’s death was a suicide or that his grandson his love child but he did have had an affair with Caroline (his son Nat’s wife), perhaps just an emotional one; though family members once spotted him with Caroline’s lipstick smeared on his face. With Nat constantly working, N.C. had assumed the head-of-the-house role in their home. At the time of his death the affair was still on-going despite the family’s knowledge of it and Nat’s pleas that things end between his wife and his father.

N.C. Wyeth House

Dark Side

In 1973 at the age of 59, Caroline was the sole fatality in a head-on collision car accident involving five women. Nat, had never before spoken about Caroline’s affairs in response to his singular devotion to work and long stretches spent away from home. That changed in 1985 when Nat suffered a stroke. He could no longer bottle up emotions as he had done his whole life. Instead he told his second wife and his sons about the love affair between his father and Caroline, something everyone else in the family had already suspected or known about. Nat died in 1990 of heart failure after the finale of a fireworks show in Maine, he was 78.

N.C. Wyeth House

N.C. Wyeth House

The dark side of N.C. that had been kept in the family was now revealed. Sometimes he simply wanted to protect his isolated and insular family unit but he could go too far, exert too much control. He concealed his father-in-law’s death from his wife for years and attempted to protect her by not telling her the real cause: suicide. He dominated his children, wishing them all to remain close by and hoping they never left home. His two daughters exerted their independence early on, quietly disagreeing with his stance on women’s roles. N.C. felt women were not intellectual creatures but emotional ones, dangerous to men and not equal. His daughter Carolyn, also an artist, felt this acutely and believed her family was ashamed of her. She was a character herself prone to eccentric outbursts:

“She was crazy in a really fun way,” Victoria [Andy’s daughter and Carolyn’s niece said of her] “She hated people so she had like eight dogs around the house…. So we decided to do something really cool for her funeral, so we cremated her then we took a big bomb with a big shell and stuffed her in it and we lit her up in front of her father’s house. It was so loud it set off all the alarms and the priest was there and he was drunk. I always talk about how nuts they are.”

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Art Heist

Much of N.C.’s work now lives at the Brandywine River Museum, just down the road from his home and studio but you can find his pieces in many other places as well. His home and studio are open for tours (the upstairs bedrooms are my favorite).

N.C. Wyeth’s work is still sought after. Just this month a man who participated in an art heist of six Wyeth paintings worth more than $12 million was sentenced to seven years in prison. The paintings were recovered at a pawn shop when the shop owner became suspicious and called the FBI to investigate.

N.C.’s wife Carolyn remained in their home until her death in 1973 at the age of 86. Andrew lived in the small home that N.C. purchased to entice his children to stay close to home for many years until moving to a larger home on the Brandywine. He continued to paint there until he passed away in 2009. We’ll go there soon! I have even more crazy stories.

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, N.C. Wyeth: a biography by David Michaelis, and my tour guide for the N.C. Wyeth house