Newell Converse Wyeth, better known as N.C. Wyeth, was more than just a painter. The father of modern day artist Andrew Wyeth (and the grandfather of Andrew’s artist son, Jamie), N.C. Wyeth tragically died before he ever really knew or appreciated his full talent. What he did have, however, was a glorious career that spanned several decades in the early twentieth century.
N.C. Wyeth was born in 1882 in Needham, Massachusetts. Early on, he developed a passion for painting and trained in several schools before studying under the great Howard Pyle in Wilmington, Delaware. Wyeth’s first important salable work was a cover for the Saturday Evening Post in 1903. After that, Wyeth’s illustrations were featured in a variety of big-name publications.
In 1906, Wyeth married a local Wilmington girl, Miss Carolyn Bockius. Wyeth and his young wife became intrigued by the landscape of a local community, located in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. It was there the couple started and raised their family of five children. Known for being a strict yet loving father, Wyeth loved to teach his children. Indeed, his youngest son Andrew studied under him and grew up to be one of the most famous artists in America. In fact, Wyeth’s offspring were all creative by nature– 4 of his 5 children were professional artists at one time or another. Wyeth was not only a loving father, but a playful one. He was known to dress up Santa Claus to surprise his wide-eyed children on Christmas morning.
Wyeth’s big break came a few years after the family moved to Chadds Ford, when he was commissioned to illustrate the Robert Lewis Stevenson classic, “Treasure Island’. Wyeth’s relationship with Scribner’s (the publisher of Treasure Island) spanned several decades and he produced dozens of illustrations for them.
Wyeth was an extremely prolific painter. Holed up in his studio, he would spend hours (sometimes days) painting and perfecting. His family knew when he was working on something big and would give him the time and space that he needed. In addition to being an artist, Wyeth was an undeniably good writer. A very rare book titled “The Wyeths by N.C. Wyeth” (edited by Betsey James Wyeth) contains a collection of N.C.’s writings– most of them letters to his mother (with whom he was extremely close), his wife and his children. Wyeth was very careful to document everything and these letters offer a unique portrayal of his life in his own words.
During the height of his career, it was not uncommon for Wyeth to host elaborate parties for the rich and famous in his Chadds Ford home. Indeed, this was a man who could appreciate the tranquil smell of fresh pine needles as well as the finer things in life. He provided a very comfortable lifestyle for his family, complete with lavish trips and homes in both Pennsylvania and Maine.
Wyeth created a slew of recognizable works during his lifetime. Some of the most famous are the Scribner’s illustrations, but others include “The Giant”, “In the Crystal Depths” and the charmingly lighthearted “Ole Kris”.
The life of this creative genius ended suddenly when Wyeth died in a freak accident in 1945. While taking his beautiful, curly haired grandson for a ride in the car, both Wyeth and the boy were struck by a locomotive as they crossed the train tracks in Chadds Ford. There are conflicting theories on what may have happened– did the car stall or did Wyeth have a heart attack at the wheel? Sadly, Wyeth and his 4 year old grandson were both killed instantly on that October day. They died less than a mile from Wyeth’s beautiful family home, in his beloved Chadds Ford.
If you want to see some of N.C. Wyeth’s works, Chadds Ford is still the place to go. The Brandywine River Museum, located on U.S. Route 1 in Chadds Ford, PA, has an extensive collection of all of the Wyeth family’s works– in fact an entire floor of the museum is devoted to the Wyeth’s. In addition, the museum offers guided tours of the preserved Wyeth family home as well as N.C. Wyeth’s studio. You can contact the museum at 610-388-2700 for more information on the Wyeth tours.