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At the Portland Art Museum, a hit show raises hard questions about N.C. Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth's "Island Funeral," from 1939.Peter K. Philbin/Brandywine River Museum of Art

PORTLAND, Maine — N.C. Wyeth is one of America’s great illustrators, or so says most everything I’ve read. But where does he rank as an artist? That’s a thornier question, and one with which Wyeth himself struggled mightily. At the Portland Museum of Art, a reappraisal of the beloved New Englander opened recently to captivated throngs (to meet demand, the museum extended its summer hours into January, staying open seven days a week). But the show leaves that question hanging. It either can’t answer, or it won’t, lest Wyeth’s many fans be aggrieved by the conclusion.

“N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” is a worthy show — a game and thorough reconsideration of a favorite son, the first in a generation, that self-consciously elides hagiography. It’s plainspoken both on Wyeth’s ample gifts and many shortcomings. But it’s noncommittal: Really, is there a more ambiguous phrase than “New Perspectives?” I guess that’s where I come in. If that means a lifetime ban at the Maine state line, so be it. (I hope not, because God, I love Maine.)


Wyeth’s a famous name around New England, a son of Needham who built a prodigious career illustrating magazines and novels. His first big break came in 1911, when he was hired to craft images to accompany a new edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Much in demand, Wyeth began splitting his time between a pair of idyllic studios, one in Chadds Ford, Pa., the other in Port Clyde, Maine (the show is co-organized with the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford). Wyeth’s name carried forward: His son, Andrew, became a national treasure for his paintings charged with steely mystery and laced with dread. Grandson Jamie, Andrew’s son, is a painter as well.

One of N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for "Treasure Island," from 1911.Bran­dywine River Museum of Art/Brandywine River Museum of Art

Andrew surely learned technique from his father, whose skill as a draftsman was formidable, crisp, and precise. But the elder Wyeth had little more to impart to Andrew, an intuitive genius on matters of the soul. Together, father and son form a case study on the vast chasm between illustration and art, between depiction and emotion. Andrew’s paintings simmer and unsettle; they leave a mark. It gives me chills just to think of “Christina’s World,” Andrew’s ridiculously famous 1948 picture of a girl propped up, alert, in a dusky field, the farmhouse too far away. N.C.’s works, meanwhile, sparkle and slide by, forgettable.


If I had to guess — all right, opine — I’d say the crowds at the PMA are drawn by the name and the home-state connection. This is the hard part: Wyeth’s work most often teeters between limp sentimentality and bland, occasionally offensive cliché. (His series “The Indian in His Solitude,” a musing on pre-Colonial indigenous life, is full of historical inaccuracies that PMA brings forth through the commentary of contemporary Native American critics.) Wyeth shines in simplicity, uncomplicated tales plainly told. That’s the language of advertising and storybooks. In the more complex realm that art demands — ambiguity, emotion, the unresolved — I can’t say. That, for him, was a largely undiscovered land, as far as I can see.

N.C. Wyeth's "The Americans at Chateau-Thierry," created in 1918/1919. Private collection

The thick irony — and the reason for the show, it says on the wall — is that Wyeth desperately longed to be taken seriously as an artist. He complained as early as 1914 that he had “bitched myself with the accursed success in skin-deep pictures and illustrations.” His reputation was no help — once an illustrator, always an illustrator; ask Norman Rockwell — and Wyeth surely suffered sideways glances in the increasingly academic art world bending rapidly toward Modernism.


Still, Winslow Homer did it, though decades before, and to spectacular effect. The comparison is useful. Homer, who drew lionizing scenes of the Union Army during the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly, can be treacly and cloying, but even his sunniest pictures have an air of uncertainty, an overlay of unease. You can’t guess what came before, or next. His inscrutable figures give nothing away as waves tumble or clouds loom.

Wyeth, on the other hand, is like a puppy pawing for attention, aching to be loved. Where Homer was inscrutable and mysterious, never looking you in the eye, Wyeth punches you square in the nose. Too often, he leaves no room for you, the viewer, to come inside.

No one can dispute his drafting ability, which is drum-tight and explicative (as I’ve said, to a fault). Literal though he may be, he’s a deft and intuitive colorist, balancing shadow and light, brilliance and color like a visual toggle switch. His palette is never garish or overdone; it’s pitch-perfect in support of the stories he means to tell (even when they’re misguided and godawful, like the mawkish “The Silent Burial,” from 1906, in which a Native American perches stiff-backed and stoic in a shadowy glade).


N.C. Wyeth's "The Silent Burial," from 1906.The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection

To be fair, there are moments. “The Drowning,” from 1936, is Wyeth near as good as he gets, with an unmanned boat adrift in dark waters by a crag of rock thick with overgrowth. Here you can see Wyeth grappling with the onrush of Modernism, trying to let go of what the eye sees to surrender to the soul. That’s the problem: It looks likes he’s trying, and much too hard. The painting feels fussy and precise, fretfully overworked. “Bright and Fair,” from the same year, has overtones of Edward Hopper’s bleak and brooding sun-bleached scenes — a thoroughly modern sense of isolation of which Hopper and Andrew Wyeth were masters — but comes out sunny side up instead.

In his quest for artistic acceptance, Wyeth tried on several strategies for size. “In a Dream I Meet General Washington,” from 1930, is a bizarre magnum opus with the artist perched on a scaffold to greet the general astride his white horse. It’s dead flat and hazy, with vignettes of soldiers marching, of a child reading, of a face-down redcoat amid a tableaux of rolling hills. Another anomaly, “The Harbor at Herring Gut,” 1925, is a soft-focus stab at traditional folk painting, with disregard for perspective and scale.

N. C. Wyeth's "In a Dream I Meet General Washington," from 1930.Bran­dywine River Museum of Art

Most often, though, Wyeth painted at fever pitch, either scrubbed up or overwrought: A picture of central-casting soldiers storming the alleyways of a European town in World War I is a stilted cringe-fest of every imaginable cliché. (Wyeth painted scenes like this from second-hand accounts; he declined offers to be a war artist in Europe.) Then there’s the ghastly painting he called “The Roaring Skipper,” from 1914, of a captain clutching the wheel of his vessel in a death grip as it pitches and rolls. He stares straight at you with dead eyes, mouth agape. I hadn’t seen anything so painfully literal and on-the-nose since I collected pulpy adventure comics as a kid.


Wyeth comes closest to moody with the wonderfully strange “Island Funeral” from 1939. It’s an aerial tableau, and a landscape of the mind: An island bathed in preternatural light, tiny figures converging to mourn the death of a sea captain. It has what much of Wyeth’s work lacked: For all its cleanly-carved scenes, there’s a looseness, a sense of otherworldly wonder, the impossible made real. Pools of cloud drift overhead, soft and imprecise; sunshine spills across a golden field to be swallowed by shadow. It’s apart from reality, a somber enigma all on its own amid the surrounding cliché. That’s why I loved it, and wondered where its kin might be.

It’s notably hushed in an oeuvre where the volume seemed always cranked to 11. Wyeth had the gift of technical virtuosity. Technique can serve art, but it doesn’t make it. Was Wyeth a servant of his talent, when it should have been the other way around? That’s the sense I took away from “New Perspectives”: of a gifted technician trapped by his talent, and a dispiriting sense of what might have been.

N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives

At the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Jan. 12. 207-775-6148; portlandmuseum.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.