Much of America ’s best art is illustration. Just gaze upon John James Audubon’s depictions of birds. It’s also true of N.C. Wyeth’s mesmerizing images of pirates and giants.
Everything Wyeth did was on an epic scale. His illustrations for children’s classics such as “ Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped”, “The Last of the Mohicans”, “Robin Hood”, and “The Yearling” captured the imagination of generations of readers with their action-packed drama.
Wyeth’s career spanned the “golden days” of illustration and the expanded use of art in advertising. In the early decades of the 20th century, Wyeth (1882-1945) along with Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, and Norman Rockwell were looking to reach a much broader audience for their work, as well as a steadier income than from just images for books or magazines. They turned to creating works specifically for advertising calendars.
“A Date with Art: The Business of Illustrated Calendars” at the recently renamed Brandywine River Museum of Art introduces visitors to the once-thriving, lucrative business. The exhibition, which runs through May 18, explores the various ways these famous illustrators integrated calendar work into their careers, adapting to shifting views of contemporary art, illustration and business.
From 1900 to 1945 hundreds of thousands of advertising calendars were produced each year. They were among the most common and frequently seen images of the time. Important dates were regularly marked on them. Hung in millions of homes, shops and offices, calendars became part of a room’s décor and were often framed at the end of the year.
From Parrish’s haunting, extravagantly colored landscapes for General Electric’s Edison Mazda lamps to Rockwell’s classic American images for the Boy Scouts of America, calendar pictures contributed greatly to an artist’s popular reputation.
While Wyeth produced work for Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Monthly, and Scribner’s magazines, he also created advertisements for clients such as Lucky Strike, Cream of Wheat, and Coca-Cola. Prestigious national companies and Wilmington ’s own Du Pont Company and Hercules Inc. partnered with these renowned artists to promote their brands.
“These companies related the quality of the artists’ work to the quality of their products,” explained Christine Podmaniczky, the exhibition’s curator. “The calendars were known as ‘remembrance advertising’ and the calendars were either given away or sold at a very affordable price.”
The exhibition showcases more than 30 full-size paintings, sketches and calendars from 1900 to 1950. Just before his death Pyle agreed to illustrate a calendar for the Du Pont Company and incorporated the powder logo on the side of a horse drawn wagon rolling through the landscape. Despite their financial benefit and fame, the artists, Wyeth in particular, fretted over the commercial associations undermining their critical reputations as artists.
Paintings are drawn from the collections of the National Museum of American Illustration, the National Scouting Museum , the Norman Rockwell Museum , and private collectors.
Next door in the Wyeth gallery is the companion exhibition “N. C. Wyeth’s America in the Making” that is also on display through May 18. The show spotlights 12 dramatic scenes that were created for the 1940 Morrell & Co. calendar, considered the most inspirational and patriotic events in American history at that time.
It begins with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s (January) grueling expedition through the Southwest and ends with Abraham Lincoln’s (December) second inaugural address in 1865. In between you encounter the Mayflower Compact, the striking image of French explorer Jacques Marquette in a canoe on a placid waterway, Ben Franklin flying his kite, Thomas Jefferson composing the Declaration of Independence, a splendid image of George Washington overlooking the pivotal battle of Yorktown during the Revolutionary War, and others. The oil paintings are on loan from the Brunnier Art Museum of Iowa State University.
Born in Massachusetts , Wyeth famously attended Howard Pyle’s School of Art at age 20 and would go on to be recognized as one of America ’s favorite illustrators. In 1911, with the proceeds from his illustrations for Treasure Island, the artist purchased 18 acres of land on Rocky Hill in the village of Chadds Ford where Wyeth built his home and studio overlooking the valley. Here he set down roots which have nourished a family of extraordinary creativity for more than a century. It has made the village synonymous with the Wyeth name.
Each morning Wyeth pulled his smock on over his work clothes and climbed the 45 flagstone steps to his studio on the hill. Hooking an enormous palette onto his left thumb he attacked the canvas, brushes in hand. Concentrating on historical fantasy and classic literature, Wyeth always adhered to the rules of great composition, color, and drama. His pieces focused on specialized lighting conditions, making each a study and learning experience in environmental effects and dramatic shadow placement.
Throughout his illustrious career Wyeth’s quick, sure strokes were commissioned to paint Civil War subjects and other prominent historical scenes as illustrations, murals and calendar pictures. His first-hand experiences transported him back in time.
The dramatic scenes in the “ America in the Making” show demonstrate Wyeth’s renowned mastery of stirring action and authentic detail. He often traveled to libraries and museums in Wilmington , Philadelphia and New York to consult reference materials and collections of artifacts such as arms, armor and costumes. Part of the exhibit is a display of props from his Chadds Ford studio– a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, a plaster bust of George Washington, a coonskin cap and flintlock rifle, circa 1785– all provide insight into how Wyeth created the images of the calendar.