Review: The Wyeth family and America

By PETER ROFF, United Press International  |  June 19, 2002 at 1:43 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 19 (UPI) -- The book at a glance: One Nation - Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N.C. Wyeth and James Wyeth with essays by Tom Brokaw and David Michaelis and an introduction by Lauren Raye Smith. Bullfinch Press, $40.00, 110 pages.


As the Fourth of July holiday draws near, many Americans are giving thought to how they will celebrate the nation's birthday. Some folks take trips and others plan elaborate outings. Most of us will spend the day at some kind of a barbecue.

We will commemorate, by consuming large quantities of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, beer and soda pop, the bravery of the Second Continental Congress as it declared the 13 colonies to be independent from Great Britain.

Those of us who will not be throwing a barbecue likely will be the guest at one. Good manners dictate that guests bring along a gift for the host appropriate to the occasion.

While it would be easy to pop down to the convenience store and pick up a six-pack of something or grab a cheery pie at the bakery, perhaps the first Independence Day after the terrible tragedy of Sept. 11 should be acknowledged by something a little more permanent.

One gift that would bring pleasure for some time to come is "One Nation- Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N.C. Wyeth and James Wyeth" (Bullfinch Press, $40.00, 110 pages). It is a coffee table book that showcases America-themed art by both the father and the son of one the country's best-known painters -- Andrew Wyeth.

N.C. Wyeth, the father of Andrew, was probably the premier illustrator of his day.

His rendering of events in classic tales like Treasure Island, The Black Arrow and Ivanhoe for Scribner's publishing house are legendary. Many of the books he illustrated are still in print.

Many of the illustrations are on display as full-sized paintings at the Brandywine River Museum devoted to the art produced by the Wyeth dynasty in Chadds Ford, Pa., as well as in other museums around the country.

Perhaps less well known is that the U.S. government called upon N.C. Wyeth in both world wars to create images that would stir the imagination and the patriotism of his fellow countrymen, some of which are reproduced in One Nation.

Wyeth's grandson James -- or Jamie as he is known in the art world -- is probably best known for his 1967 portrait of President John F. Kennedy, reproduced in the book.

Jamie is as much a product of his time as his grandfather was a product of the latter part of 19th century America. Coming of age in the 60's, Jamie is as much an introspective critic of America as his grandfather was a patriotic exponent of its flag waving traditions.

In their own way, each renders their vision of the America they knew and experienced, images that are reproduced in One Nation.

In their own way, for they are extremely different kinds of paintings and drawings, they will nonetheless stir the hearts of even the most cynical of Americans.

N.C. Wyeth's 1992 Paul Revere's Ride, in its muted grays and pale, almost icy blues, shows Revere on his horse in mid-stride, shouting the alarm to a man in nightcap and gown leaning out of a second floor window.

It is a vivid blur, so dramatic that one can almost hear "To arms, to arms, the British are coming" bursting out of the painting.

"We're On our Way," an illustration from 1944, shows a defiant and determined Uncle Sam -- teeth gritted, sleeves rolled up to expose muscular forearms -- as a colossus emerging from the smoke and dust of America's productive might. It is almost as though he is ready to leap from the page as factory smokestacks emit a thick, black haze that signifies the nation is hard at work in the fight against the Axis powers.

N.C. captures the tone of a triumphal America, ready to assume its rightful place on the world stage, proud both of its origins and its current and new mission.

Jamie Wyeth's art is much more introspective than his grandfather's.

Where N.C.'s portraits suggest the heroics of the real and fictional characters he painted, Jamie's show a nation ill at ease with the burden his grandfather's generation had placed upon its shoulders.

Particularly compelling are the portraits and sketches of Kennedy family members -- not just the portrait of the late president but the studies of his brothers -- the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

The sketches reflect the hope, the promise and the pain the family has endured and gives the sense that the nation has shared all that with them.

Of particular interest among the representations of Jamie's work in One Nation are the sketches he drew, initially for Harper's magazine according to the text, of important figures from Watergate.

They are black and white -- like the truth -- and make interesting use of shadow and line, realistic but in some unclear way reflective of the corruption and stench of the whole business.

As beautiful and stirring as the paintings and drawings are, the book also benefits from accompanying texts that place the works and their place in American culture in a proper context.

Written by Tom Brokaw of NBC News and author of "The Greatest Generation"; David Michaelis, author of "N.C. Wyeth: A Biography"; and with an introduction by Lauren Raye Smith, the Wyeth Center curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Me., the texts establish an additional avenue through which to access the art.

One Nation, whether as present for a connoisseur of American artistic tradition or to someone who just loves the country and what it stands for, is a gift that will be treasured for years to come. Handsome and instructive, it will be a welcome addition to the library of almost anyone.

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