N.C. Wyeth: learning by heading west

October 26, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writing.

In 1903, 20-year-old Newell Convers Wyeth, an aspiring illustrator, boarded a train and headed west.

Actually, he could claim more than the adjective “aspiring.” He had just pulled off a coup in the world of illustration that had eluded artists who were two or three times his age. His illustration of a cowboy on a bucking bronco had appeared on the February 3rd Saturday Evening Post, then one of the nation’s premier magazines.

Still, he was young, inexperienced, and seeking to make his mark. The Post cover had generated another commission from the Post: illustrate a Western story that Post wanted to run. Wyeth’s friend and teacher, the great writer/illustrator Howard Pyle, urged Wyeth to “go west” and get a first-hand look at what he was about to draw.

The trip had a profound effect on Wyeth’s career and helped vault him to the top the illustration universe — a universe that during his time with was filled people whose work we remember today: the aforementioned Pyle, Charle Dana Gibson, Reginald Birch, and the like. But when it comes to early 20th-century illustrators, the name of N.C. Wyeth is at the top of just about everyone’s list.

During his western sojourn, Wyeth joined cattle drives, delivered mail by horseback, drove a stagecoach, worked on a ranch, visited Indian tribes and villages. He listened to stories around a campfire at night. Most of all, he drew and sketched and painted. He later wrote of his experiences: 

“Now when I paint a figure on horseback, a man plowing, or a woman buffeted by the wind, I have an acute sense of the muscle strain, the feel of the hickory handle, or the protective bend of the head and squint of eye that each pose involves. After painting action scenes, I have ached for hours because of having put myself in the other fellow’s shoes as I realized him on canvas.” Source: The Life and Art of N.C. Wyeth | The Saturday Evening Post

Wyeth never forgot that trip. The rugged West is evident in just about every painting he produced.

And produce he did. When he returned East for good (he took a second trip two years after the first), he began accepting commissions for magazine and book illustrations that never let up. In all, he produced more than 3,000 paintings and illustrated more than 100 books. In addition, he did posters, commercials, private commissions, murals, calendars, and patriotic scenes that supported the American cause in both World War I and World War II.

His most famous work is probably the set of illustrations he did for Charles Scribner’s edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1911. The set of 17 illustrations show scenes from the book that made it compelling to young readers and are thought to be the best set of book illustrations ever produced. They are detailed and dramatic, and readers young and old (including myself) continue to be fascinated by them. Those paintings were followed by many others that have influenced our images of pirate, knights, cowboys, Founding Fathers, and the like.

Wyeth died tragically in 1945 in an automobile accident that killed him and his grandson. Despite his success, Wyeth was never completely satisfied with his work. He always tried to do more and do it better.

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