People tend to turn to the writings of Henry David Thoreau when they want to be rescued from criteria they’ve successfully met. Thoreau is there to remind you of other, older criteria, and of a simpler, though harder to attain, idea of success.
N.C. Wyeth, the great American illustrator, turned increasingly to Thoreau as his own tremendous success began to disappoint him. Over 15 years, he had established himself as America’s premier illustrator, with covers for national magazines and illustrations for classic books to his name. He had a huge audience; commissions galore; a house and studio in Chadds Ford, Pa.; a wife; a family.
But something was missing. Thoreau, he felt, had somehow put his finger on it.
The fruit of Wyeth’s lasting obsession with Thoreau is on display at the Concord Museum in an exhibition of original paintings, “N.C. Wyeth’s Men of Concord.” A remarkable little show, it is complemented by a second exhibit at the nearby Concord Free Public Library, “From ‘Thoreau’s Seasons’ to ‘Men of Concord’: N.C. Wyeth Inspired,” which explains both Wyeth’s obsession with Thoreau and the story of its fruition.
Wyeth had been reading Thoreau for a decade when he pitched the Boston publishing firm Houghton Mifflin with the idea of producing an illustrated volume of Thoreau’s journal entries.
Wyeth had grown up in Needham, not too far from Thoreau’s Concord. His family still lived there, and he wrote to them in 1910 of the effect on him of Thoreau’s most intimate letters. He marveled at “how interested” Thoreau was “in the house cat” and “what tenderness he showed for his home people and his few friends.”
Possibly, he was homesick. He was also, in a way, mourning the loss of his mentor, Howard Pyle, whom he felt had abandoned him several years earlier. And he was vaguely disgusted with his own material success.
Wyeth wasn’t just producing illustrations for “Treasure Island” and “The Odyssey.” He was making murals for banks and advertisements for Coca Cola, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and Lucky Strike.
The publishers he worked for, he complained (echoing Thoreau’s lament, in “Walden,” of the laboring man who “has no time to be any thing but a machine”), “want to buy me piecemeal, and in searching for the best they get the worst, because they push and prod.”
In 1920, he delivered a paper, “Thoreau, His Critics, and the Public.” In it, he defended his hero against those who saw him as a charlatan, a crank, or a “mere” naturalist. He longed, secretly, to import some of the integrity he found in Thoreau into his own life.
It wasn’t so easy. Houghton Mifflin, already established as the premier publisher of Thoreau, had agreed to Wyeth’s idea of publishing an illustrated version of the journals. But Wyeth had delayed and delayed. It almost seems he cared too much.
He also diverted himself with a painting, “Walden Pond Revisited,” a sort of intensely detailed fantasy landscape, fired with spiritual intensity, that shows Thoreau against the backdrop of Walden Pond. (A second version of this work painted in 1942, 10 years after the original, is also in the show, on loan from the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Pennsylvania.)
And so it wasn’t until 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, that the book, “Men of Concord,” came out.
For the first time in nearly eight decades, the Concord Museum show brings together all 12 of the large paintings Wyeth produced for the book, along with eight related drawings by his 19-year-old son, Andrew. These were dispersed throughout the text in ways that suggested Thoreau’s own sketches in his journals. Andrew Wyeth, already a better draftsman than his father, would go on to much greater fame as a fine artist. He was not credited.
“Men of Concord,” the painting used on the book’s cover, depicts a gathering of great men under autumn leaves on a sunny day. Only two of the five — Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau himself — can be identified readily.
Aside from its vivid coloring, what’s remarkable about the picture is the way that two of the figures stare soberly out at us, as if just made aware of our presence. The other two are engaged in the sharing of important news. They gaze intently at a bespectacled man whose back is to us as he reads from a newspaper.
It’s Wyeth’s clever way not only of drawing us in, but also of asking, perhaps, whether we are qualified to participate in such serious matters.
Wyeth was trying something new in these works. Accustomed to working on canvas, he now painted in oils over wooden panels coated in eight layers of gesso. The surface was therefore smooth, offering little resistance to his brush, and he could make use of its bright whiteness for highlights, snow, and so on.
There are two interiors: a lamp-lit, shadowy scene portraying a young Thoreau in intimate, reflective conversation with Miss Mary Emerson, and another arresting image showing the rigid back of Thoreau, an ardent abolitionist, at a table with three reformers, all of them vaguely smug, smarmy, or compromised.
The rest depict the splendid outdoors in different seasons. They amount to a suspiciously pristine version of New England’s landscape. But each one is filled with particulars — the engines of great illustration.
In “The Muskrat-Hunters, Godwin and Hayes,” two hunters and a dog occupy a kayak in a flooding river, all three with preternatural alertness.
Another fine painting shows Bronson Alcott drawing in front of a gravestone in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground. The image, fittingly owned by the adjacent Boston Athenaeum, suggests both pride in ancestry and pride in place. Both forms of attachment were dear not only to N.C. Wyeth, but to his whole, celebrated family.
N.C. Wyeth’s Men of Concord
At: Concord Museum, Concord. Through Sept. 18. 978-369-9763, www.concordmuseum.org
From “Thoreau’s Seasons” to “Men of Concord”: N.C. Wyeth Inspired
At Concord Free Public Library. Through Sept. 18. 978-318-3300, www.concordlibrary.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.