Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Favorite Read: WONDROUS STRANGE The Wyeth Tradition

This book appears to have no author or editor listed so I can only assume the book sprang into being by a magical wave of the wand. Here's what appears on the title page:

The Wyeth Tradition
Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, James Wyeth
Foreword by David Michaelis
Introduction by Susan C. Larsen
with Essays by Stephen T. Bruni, Betsy James Wyeth, Theordore F. Wolff, and Christopher Crossman

From the copyright page:
This book has been published on the occasion of the exhibition Wondrous Strange: Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine June 21 - November 8, 1998
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware
December 10, 1998 - February 21, 1999

I bought this years ago and lately have been looking for a good excuse (other than wanting to share the work of some amazing artists with the world at large) to talk about a book that from its gorgeous cover to its last page is an absolute delight of imagination. The incredible talent of four fascinating artists (three from the same family) are covered just deeply enough to make the reader want to search out more of that artists' work and learn more of their life stories.
This is not a Wyeth family saga but an evocation of the styles of the legendary and innovative pioneer Howard Pyle as well as the three brilliant Wyeths who followed.

In 1902, at the age of twenty. N.C. Wyeth [father of Andrew Wyeth and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth] moved to Wilmington, Delaware to study painting. One Saturday morning that October, he knocked on Howard Pyle's studio door. There, at 1305 Franklin Street, in student studios adjacent to his own, Pyle was offering a group of provincial young men and women a provincial setting in which to develop a wholly unconventional approach to painting.

Pyle taught picturemaking at a time when a single painted picture, reproduced through the miracle of photogravure printing, could reach into the lives of a million people all at once. Working alone in prosaic, un-wondrous Wilmington, Pyle had discovered that by deliberately merging feelings with the external world of objects, he could produce pictures that brought American books and magazines alive.

...N.C. Wyeth would always believe that hypnotic powers had acted on him during his first interview with Pyle. Many other students later commented on the 'great awakening power of Howard Pyle' - the way he would 'unlock' their true character. The 'master' as they called him, was thought to have extraordinary personal powers. His students openly idolized him...

...Pyle had an instinct for display. The ritual he made of checking in on his pupils in the course of a day showcased his grand manner to phenomenal effect. Wyeth would later endow these visitations with the mysterious aura of gospel events...

The subject of Wondrous Strange proceeds from this very kind of visitation - the incarnation of the fantastic in everyday reality.

Howard Pyle embodied a literary genre that both N.C. Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth would come to illustrate, the genre of the 'mysterious stranger," in which a divine personage, incarnated an an ordinary man, visits a small village, breaking open the veneer of tranquility in order to awaken the villagers to their inner selves.

"The mysterious stranger..." of course, brings immediately to mind all the detective thrillers/mysteries and even western tales we read as kids, as teenagers and now as adults. We read them without pictures -well, except for the pictures the author paints with words - but we immediately, I think, understood the romance of the thing (even if we choose not to admit the word 'romance' into our consciousness) and that, I'm convinced, is what we responded to then and continue to respond to now.

I don't, for one minute think of Pyle or N.C. Wyeth as genre painters. But I suspect, in that, I am in the minority. Their work served to 'illustrate' the magical stories of the some of the greatest writers of the 19th and 20th centuries and I suppose this is held against them in some quarters. N.C. Wyeth himself fought a lifelong battle between his ideal of painting and his need to earn a living. He never believed that 'illustration' and serious 'painting' could combine.

The images in Wondrous Strange re-open our eyes not so much to scenes we know from life itself, but to the dreamlike collision of the fantastic and the real - fantastic in its Greek etymology, phantastikos, able to create and represent mental visions.

The work of these artists brings to visual life the continuing need for romance and grand adventure, its idealization - the search for the mysterious 'other' - which is, I believe, the main reason so many of us read the books we do. I also believe writing and painting, in many ways, can be interchangeable arts, at least when it comes to filling an inchoate need for the 'mysterious'. But I think Andrew Wyeth's work, particularly, is the less visible (or maybe I mean, the less accessible) of the four, filled as it is with cold, secretive whispers and allusions. Perhaps because of this, I am not as fond of his paintings as I am of the other three.

Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, especially, have visually influenced the world that came after them: films, television, advertising (as well as the artists who followed) have all, at one time or another, shown the legacy of these early giants. Many of the scenes in STAR WARS, for instance, appear to me to be heavy with the imprint of Pyle and Wyeth.

The paintings I show above are attributed as follows:

  • Cover of Wondrous Strange: Jamie Wyeth
  • Painting from The Little Mermaid: Howard Pyle
  • Painting of scene from Robin Hood: Howard Pyle
  • Painting of two knights in combat: N.C. Wyeth
  • Painting of Richard the Lion Heart: N.C. Wyeth
  • Painting of the Giant in the clouds: N.C. Wyeth
  • Painting from Last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth
  • Painting of knee high boots: Andrew Wyeth
  • Painting of boy on hill: Andrew Wyeth
  • Painting of Jack O' Lantern: Jamie Wyeth
Please note: Not all the paintings I show above are from the pages of Wondrous Strange, they are meant to represent some of my own personal favorite works of the artists mentioned in this post. I didn't scan the interior of the book simply because I don't have a scanner at the moment.

Addendum: I've recently come across this post about Howard Pyle at the wonderful art blog, lines and colors. Take a look to learn about Pyle and his incredible work.


  1. Oh, my dad would love this book. I'm going to have to start scouring the internet to see if I can find a copy.

  2. Hi Lisa, I don't think you'll have any problem finding a copy. It's still around. Worth the look, I think. :)

    And by the way: Have a great New Year!!

  3. I'm with Lisa and am going to start scouring for this book for my father as well. My childhood is infused with these images, so much so that I can't separate the books from the illustrations. This is something that doesn't get touch on much in literary criticism.

    Yvette, your blog is mesmerizing. Every time I got through it I am caught by a title here or a thought there. I see you have the film Cold Comfort Farm. I haven't seen the film but I love the novel. What a strange work it is Same for Angels and Insects.

  4. Hi Robin, thanks for stopping by. Yes, this is a gorgeous book. Just the cover takes your breath away. I've got my eye on N.C. Wyeth - A biography, by David Michaelis as my next non-fiction read. These were amazing people. N.C. Wyeth, especially, came to a tragic end, not that Pyle's end was any bundle of laughs either.

    But we have their art.

    Oh you must see the film version of COLD COMFORT FARM, Robin. It is wonderful. I love the book, but I also love the film - they did a brilliant job.

    ANGELS AND INSECTS: what is there to say? Such a strange and off-putting film. And yet I've never forgotten the cinematography and the costumes, the brilliant use of color. Almost too impossibly lush. The wierdness of the whole thing. A mesmerizing film.

  5. I sent you an e-mail asking for this book, Yvette, but I just managed to locate it. Wyeth was magic to me as a child.

  6. Glad you found it, Robin. :)


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