N.C. Wyeth is widely recognized as one of America's most important and successful illustrators. His depictions of adventure heroes such as Robin Hood, Long John Silver, and Robinson Crusoe are still etched in the popular imagination after three generations.
The descendant of a New England Puritan family, Wyeth was born on a farm in Needham, Massachusetts on October 22, 1882. Young Convers (as he was called throughout his life) showed an early inclination toward art but, at the urging of his father, he applied his talents to the study of drafting while in high school. With the support of his mother he later enrolled in Massachusetts Normal Art School where an instructor encouraged him to pursue illustration.
In 1902, the master illustrator, Howard Pyle, selected Wyeth to attend his new art school in Wilmington, Delaware. He quickly became one of Pyle's most favored students, and in less than five months (and undoubtedly using Pyle's extensive publishing contacts) Wyeth made his first sale to Saturday Evening Post which published his painting of bucking horse and rider on the cover of the issue for February 21, 1903.
Wyeth's interest in Western subjects probably resulted from a boyhood trip with his family that was later recalled through the ubiquitous western illustrations of Frederic Remington. Pyle also encouraged Wyeth's choice of subjects, and since one of Pyle's precepts was that the artist must have first-hand experience with his subjects, he suggested that Wyeth travel in the West to immerse himself in its landscape and culture.
Funded by a commission from Scribner's magazine, Wyeth headed to Colorado in October of 1904 with the intention writing and illustrating an article on the fall roundup. Through a friend's contacts, he joined up with the cowhands of the Gill Ranch in eastern Colorado, riding with them for two weeks and participating in all of the work of the cowboys.
Enthralled with the experience, Wyeth next headed to Arizona for two weeks of sketching on the Navajo Reservation. On the way, he stopped to sketch Navajo weavers and potters in northwestern New Mexico. Since he was riding alone, Wyeth decided to leave most of his money at a trading post for safekeeping, only to have the post raided by bandits who made off with all of the cash. Left without enough money to continue the trip or return home, Wyeth took a job carrying mail on horseback over the mountains between Two Grey Hills, New Mexico and Fort Defiance, Arizona. He finally was able to return East in December.
Wyeth made a second trip to the Southwest early in the year 1906, commissioned this time by Outing magazine to explore mining operations. Though he collected western clothing and artifacts to use in his paintings, this excursion apparently was less eventful than the first. Most likely, he was preoccupied throughout the trip by his upcoming wedding to Wilmington native, Carolyn Bockius, which took place in April of that year.
Among the direct results of Wyeth's western adventures were the paintings promised to Scribner's and Outing. More importantly, his trips through open country allowed him to absorb impressions of the light, landscape, people and mood of the Southwest. The sketches and memories would provide inspiration and content for more than 400 western illustrations over the coming years. Their popularity quickly propelled young Wyeth into the top ranks of American illustrators and assured him a steady stream of commissions from the most popular magazines of the day including Century, Harper's Monthly, Ladies Home Journal and McClures.
Wyeth also started a long string of advertising work during the century's first decade; in particular, his paintings for Cream-of-Wheat from 1906-07 are considered some of his best western work. Later ad clients included Coca-Cola, Steinway & Sons, General Electric, John Morrell, Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Life Insurance, Aunt Jemima, and Lucky Strike.
In 1911 Wyeth received his first book commission, Treasure Island, from Scribner's. The enormous success of this volume led to commissions for other famous titles including Kidnapped (1913), The Black Arrow (1916), Robin Hood (1917), The Boy's King Arthur (1917), The Mysterious Island (1918), The Last of the Mohicans (1919), Robinson Crusoe (1920), Rip Van Winkle (1921), The Deerslayer (1925), Men of Concord (1936), and The Yearling (1939).
1911 also was the year of Wyeth's first mural commission, for Hotel Utica in Utica, New York. As with his publishing successes, this first mural resulted in a long line of projects through the 1920s and 1930s including: Traymore Hotel; Atlantic City; Missouri State Capitol, Jefferson City; Federal Reserve Bank, Boston; Westtown School, Westtown, Pennsylvania; First National Bank of Boston; Hotel Roosevelt; New York City; Franklin Savings Bank, New York City; National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.; First Mechanics Bank, Trenton, New Jersey; and Wilmington Savings Fund Society, Wilmington, Delaware. Wyeth's last mural commission, from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of New York, was a large, two cycle project depicting Pilgrim life. Unfinished at the time of his death, it was completed by his son Andrew and son-in-law, John McCoy.
Despite Wyeth's enormous success with illustration and mural commissions, he deeply desired to be known as an easel painter. From the 1920s on he increasingly devoted his time to landscape, genre, still life and portraits, mostly informed by the places and people around his homes in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and Port Clyde, Maine. He experimented with a variety of styles and even took up a new medium, tempera on gesso, introduced to him by his son-in-law, Peter Hurd. The Macbeth Gallery in New York mounted Wyeth's first one-man show in December of 1939. Despite his intense work and passion, however, Wyeth's easel paintings never met with the widespread critical and public acclaim heaped upon his commercial work.
Convers and Carolyn Wyeth raised five children, three of whom-Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew- became painters. Including children, grandchildren and spouses, Wyeth gave rise to an artistic dynasty including fourteen painters, a composer, and a filmmaker. The most famous of this legacy is painter, Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew. Tragically, N.C. Wyeth did not live to see his grandchildren mature into their careers, as he and his namesake grandson were killed on October 19, 1945 at a Chadds Ford railroad crossing.