Whether he was penning the illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” or sketching out an ad for Lucky Strikes cigarettes, early 20th-century illustrator and artist N.C. Wyeth often dreamed of a very different kind of project
A great admirer of Henry David Thoreau, Wyeth yearned to apply his artistic talents toward illuminating the works of the renowned naturalist — specifically his journals. He even got as far as pitching the idea to publishing house Houghton-Mifflin.
But not until Francis Allen, an early Thoreau Society member and Houghton-Mifflin editor, took an interest did the project actually gain traction.
The result, once Wyeth was finally commissioned to create art based on the words and ideas of Thoreau, was “Men of Concord,” a high-end coffee table-type book illustrated with panels by Wyeth which serves as the inspiration for a two-part exhibition opening concurrently on April 15 at the Concord Museum and the Concord Free Public Library.
According to Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at the library, it was always Wyeth’s intention that the 12 “Men of Concord” paintings should hang together in perpetuity, preferably in the public art gallery created by a 1937 renovation of the library. And Wyeth offered a price that sounds minimal now: $5,000 for the whole set, a discount from the $650 per painting price at which he listed the works.
The library balked at the money. But in 1944, Caleb Kendall Wheeler, a Concord native who grew up reading the works of Thoreau, died fighting in World War II. His parents, searching for an appropriate public memorial, purchased one of the panels for the library in 1947 in their son’s memory, and later the library corporation purchased two more. The rest went into private collections.
So it seemed a fitting kickoff to next year’s 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth to realize Wyeth’s vision at last and bring all 12 paintings together for the first time.
“The story of this particular commission is rather unique in Wyeth’s oeuvre,” said Christine Podmaniczky, curator of N.C. Wyeth Collections and Historic Properties at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Penn., and guest curator for the Concord Museum exhibit.
“It was the only one he came to with 25 years of preparation, based on his longstanding admiration of Thoreau’s writings and his conviction that Thoreau’s advice was pertinent, profound and practical for the modern age.”
So who, exactly, were these men of Concord?
Wilson said they represent “a real cross-section of the community, from immigrant Irish and humble wood-cutters and farmers to lawyers and literary lights.” The artist, for his part, found the title slightly confusing.
“Interestingly, Wyeth did not like the title ‘Men of Concord,’” Wilson explained. “He thought it would make people think either of military men on April 19, 1775, or of the literary men of the 19th century, rather than the broader community that he knew Thoreau had inhabited and appreciated.”
The book was not quite as narrowly focused as the title might suggest, Wilson points out. “Women can, in fact, be found in ‘Men of Concord’ — for example, Mary Moody Emerson, who was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brilliant aunt; Cynthia Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau’s mother; and Mary Merrick Brooks, a neighbor of the Thoreau family and an antislavery leader in Concord.”
But, Wilson said, the nominal omission of women can perhaps best be seen as a sign of the times — and of the author’s society. “Men dominated the world he occupied,” Wilson said.
Podmaniczky first became enticed by the idea of uniting the 12 “Men of Concord” panels when Peggy Burke, the Concord Museum’s executive director, contacted her about it. As a recognized N.C. Wyeth expert and the author of a 2008 catalog raisonne of the artist’s work, Podmaniczky had unique knowledge of where each of the 12 pieces could be located. But she also appreciated the significance of this exhibit in the trajectory of Wyeth’s posthumous recognition.
“During Wyeth’s time, illustration was considered a lesser art, as opposed to fine art,” Podmaniczky said. “He was aware of that his whole life. But illustration gives a very interesting sense of the time in which it was produced. In 1936, people were relying on books and magazines for entertainment. Visual art was a much more important part of people’s lives than it is today. Illustrating ‘Men of Concord’ was a chance for Wyeth to really do a service to the general public.”
Wyeth was born in Needham in 1882 and as a young man enrolled in art school in Wilmington, Del. He achieved rapid success as an illustrator, his early work on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post followed by a commission from the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons for a series of fictional classics, including “Kidnapped,” “Robin Hood,” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”
The artist Andrew Wyeth was just one of the five children he and his wife raised in Chadds Ford, Penn., where the elder Wyeth died in a train accident in 1945, a year before the birth of his grandson, the artist Jamie Wyeth.
Concord Museum Curator David Wood, who has worked closely with Podmaniczky in organizing this exhibition, discovered that it was Wyeth’s mother-in-law who first introduced the artist to Thoreau’s writings. Wyeth’s own copies of Thoreau’s journals and of “Walden,” complete with margin notes and slips of paper stuck in to mark favorite passages, will appear in the Concord Museum exhibit along with the paintings.
Meanwhile, just a half-mile away at the Concord Free Public Library, the theme of Wyeth and Thoreau continues with an exhibition titled “From Thoreau’s Seasons to Men of Concord: N. C. Wyeth Inspired.” Wilson hopes that viewers will make the short journey from one site to the other to see both facets of the two-part exhibition.
Programming in conjunction with the Men of Concord exhibitions, which run through mid-September, will take place at both sites. Planned events include an opening reception, panel discussions, guest lecturers and gallery tours. For more information on the Concord Museum, located at 200 Lexington Rd., call 978-369-9763 or go to www.concordmuseum.org.For more about the Concord Free Public Library at 129 Main St. in Concord, go to www.concordlibrary.org.Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.