ROCKLAND, Maine — It wasn’t until my third or fourth look that I noticed the row of seagulls. Blind, really. It’s an N.C. Wyeth painting, after all, and seagulls and the Wyeth family have a distinguished history. How could I have missed them?
Here they stand in formation, silhouetted against the sky, looking out in almost the same oblique direction as the fisherman’s family. In their militaristic alignment, feathers fluffed against the cold, they appear alert, opportunistic. And yet also, in the deeper, human sense, indifferent.
Their presence mocks the picture’s heightened human drama, drawing it closer to the absurdities of fate.
“Fisherman’s Family,” as the painting is called, shows John Teel, his wife, and their granddaughter. They stand on a dock beside a stack of lobster traps, poised for a departure — presumably Mr. Teel’s.
The Teels lived in Dark Harbor, Maine. They were among many locals the great illustrator Newell Convers Wyeth got to know during summers spent in Maine.
Wyeth portrayed them three times. This large canvas was painted around 1933-’34. It’s part of the Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection on display at the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Wyeth Center. It’s the most impressive work in “N.C. Wyeth: Painter,” a show that makes a strong case for Wyeth as something more than just a hugely successful illustrator. It runs through Dec. 31.
Teel’s slumped but monumentalized presence simultaneously suggests virile strength and deep-set fatigue. The old couple’s blank or hollow eyes stand in counterpoint to the clear, wide-apart, and very intent eyes of the young girl.
This striking shift in register is what critics who denigrate Wyeth might point to as evidence of sentimentality. Even his more celebrated son, Andrew, ridiculed his father’s bias toward storytelling. When N.C. suggested to Andrew that he should place a gun in the hand of a man he had painted simply striding across a field, he had “missed the point,” wrote Andrew. What was the point? To evoke “the silence of one of those fall mornings in Maine,” he explained.
Evidently, that is the sort of thing real artists do. They evoke moods. They don’t tell stories. But try telling that to Rembrandt, who — as far as I can tell — managed to do both pretty well.
The mood of this painting is palpable. Ambivalent feelings course through it. They find expression not just in the three figures but in the mottled coloration, the domesticated yet still unyielding landscape, and the shifting, indistinct quality of light.
Isn’t it odd, too, that a picture that is so incontrovertibly about the sea shows not a single drop of water? Just that eloquent row of seagulls.
By N.C. Wyeth. At Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum Street, Rockland, Maine. 207-596-6457, farnsworthmuseum.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.