When Jamie Wyeth was a kid in Chadds Ford, Pa., he would read “Robin Hood” and then walk to his late grandfather’s studio and see the book come to life. Inside were N.C. Wyeth’s paintings for his famous illustrations for that book and others. A third- generation artist (his dad is Andrew Wyeth), Jamie’s work is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through Dec. 28., the first retrospective of the the younger Wyeth’s paintings
BOOKS: Given you have three houses, including a lighthouse in Maine, where are most of your books?
WYETH: Scattered among all three houses. Sometimes I have dual copies of the book I’m reading. I have copies of the books my grandfather illustrated for Scribner’s in each house. I read those books all the time.
BOOKS: What other kinds of books do you have?
WYETH: I have hundreds of art books and the biographies of artists I love, such as Thomas Eakins and Edgar Degas. Right now I’m reading the third volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill. Then I’m struggling with “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell. It recounts the life of a Nazi officer in the war. God, that’s a difficult book to read. It’s so searing.
BOOKS: What makes you pick up a book?
WYETH: Most of my reading is based on what I’m working on. I did a series of paintings based on the seven deadly sins so I read Dante and then Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” That was a bit hard going. Christ, those are long tomes. I’m doing a series of paintings of untoward occurrences on Monhegan Island in Maine, where I own a house. One involved the painter Rockwell Kent so I read everything by and about him. His books are wonderful, such as his autobiography, “It’s Me O Lord,” and “Wilderness,” about his travels in Alaska. What an unbelievable life he led. Christ, he was everywhere.
BOOKS: You’ve painted a lot of animals. Do you read about them?
WYETH: I mostly paint animals I’m familiar with, but I did a series of paintings of ravens so I read everything about them. The scientist Bernd Heinrich has written the most interesting books on those birds, “Mind of the Raven” and “Ravens in Winter.” I went to his Vermont cabin, which is 3 miles into the forest. He lives in an aviary of ravens. They are flying through his house.
BOOKS: Was there a book that had a strong impact on you early on?
WYETH: When I was very young I read a book that floored me, “The Wanderer” by Alain-Fournier. It’s the only book he wrote. He was killed in the First World War. The novelist John Fowles, who I ended up meeting, was a great admirer of the book. He came to my island in Tenants Harbor because he was birder. He was on a cane then. When he stepped on shore a raven practically landed on him.
BOOKS: Are you a Fowles fan?
WYETH: Oh yes. I love the “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” I thought “The Magus” was extraordinary.
BOOKS: What do you have on your bookshelves that might surprise someone?
‘I live in the world of children’s books. The way they marry the visual with the imagined just totally intrigues me.’
WYETH: Probably all the children’s books. Every few years I still read “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. I live in the world of children’s books. The way they marry the visual with the imagined just totally intrigues me. Illustration is understandably important to me.
BOOKS: Do you collect contemporary illustrated books?
WYETH: No. I’m not that crazy about them, except for Chris Van Allsburg. The illustrated books of the golden era weren’t really for children. Look at the works of the great British illustrator Arthur Rackham. They are phenomenal paintings. Now illustrated children’s books are all Disney-fied and classified for specific age groups. That is too bad. About 30 years ago the New York City Public Library had an exhibit of my grandfather’s illustrations. At the opening there was this woman, who must have been 94. She tugged on my arm. She said, “Oh Mr. Wyeth I’m so glad to meet you. I grew up on your illustrations of ‘Robin Hood.’ ” My grandfather died before I was born. She must have thought the fountain of youth was in Chadds Ford.