In 1902 Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) left his family home in Needham, Massachusetts, to attend the Howard Pyle School of Art in Wilmington, Delaware, and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. A man acutely appreciative of natural beauty, Wyeth grew to love the Brandywine countryside. He settled in Chadds Ford and raised a family there, but as the years passed Wyeth discovered within him a growing need to return to New England. In May 1919, Wyeth wrote to Sidney M. Chase, his close friend and fellow artist, of "the feeling of utmost necessity that we must get back to New England." (Betsy James Wyeth, ed., The Wyeths, The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1902-1945, Boston: Gambit, 1971, p. 618) He began to search for summer property in Maine.
But not just anywhere in Maine. In 1910, Wyeth and Chase had traveled down the Maine coast on the steamer that ran from Portland to Rockland. The two friends had stopped at Port Clyde and had been captivated by the town and harbor. Ten years later, Wyeth purchased the Port Clyde house and property of Captain Norris Seavy. A dilapidated, weathered Cape atop a gently sloping field that met the water at a rocky shore, the house afforded a view to several islands. Elated at the prospect of spending future summers in Maine, he vowed to Chase to "approach our opportunity with real reverence and [to] cherish the charm and historic appeal of the little storm-beaten homestead" (Letters, p. 652).
Renovations to the Seavy house took much longer than Wyeth expected. The family spent their first summer there in 1930. Wyeth christened the old house "Eight Bells" and hung a reproduction of Winslow Homer's painting by that name in the living room. A small studio, situated right at the water, was build in 1931; through the years Wyeth shared the workspace with his daughters, Henriette and Carolyn, and with his son, Andrew. He also sketched and painted outdoors, on the wharf in Port Clyde or along the rocky beach in Martinsville called Cannibal Shore.
Throughout his career Wyeth was conscious of the pejorative connotations associated with the word illustrator. He earned his fame and a comfortable living as an illustrator, but as letter after letter reveals, he yearned for recognition as a pure painter. By 1920 he had assembled an impressive body of still lifes, landscapes and portraits, but public acknowledgement of his painterly works and personal satisfaction still eluded him. Maine provided Wyeth with a fresh beginning, and he sought new inspiration there with characteristic vigor and optimism. Wyeth recognized that the land and the sea offered him the opportunity to pursue his fondest aspiration. "How I teem to paint that wonderful water and shore," he wrote to Sid Chase early in September, 1920 (Letters, p. 657). Five years later, writing again to Chase from Port Clyde, he noted, "Port Clyde is meaning a great deal to me and will mean increasingly more as time goes on. As soon as I can outgrow the picturesqueness of appeal of the country and its inhabitants, it may be that I can someday strike at something bigger in the painting of it" (Letters, p. 706). Before coming to Port Clyde for a vacation in the summer of 1925, Wyeth saw a small exhibition of Winslow Homer's watercolors. He acknowledged to Chase that Homer alone "has risen above locality (yet sacrificing none of it!) and has presented the sea, land and sky for everybody and all time" (Letters, p. 707). Homer's accomplishment spurred Wyeth to challenge himself.
The letters of N. C. Wyeth present a man absorbed in his natural surroundings. The letters from Eight Bells contain poetic descriptions of the coast, the sea and the light, studied with the eye of an artist for future use in his work. In the myriad of changing details Wyeth sensed both exhilaration and melancholy, the essence of his Maine experience. He wrote to Sid Chase, "If I could translate into color and design the deep note of mournful joy I experienced from lying on the grassy slope in front of our old house, listening to the soft rush of the water on that stony beach, and feeling the soft, salt-laden air moaning in the hollows of my face, I would feel quite happy, I'm sure" (Letters, p. 707).
Here was the generality, "the extraction of the abstraction" that Wyeth sought to capture in paint (Letters, p. 707). Wyeth's love of nature paralleled his deep concern throughout his life "to paint scenes which demonstrate the affinity of man to the land on which he lives and works." (James H. Duff, Not for Publication: Landscapes, Still Lifes, and Portraits by N. C. Wyeth, Chadds Ford, PA, Brandywine River Museum, 1982, p.12) In Maine, Wyeth encountered the hardy, rugged individual, the fisherman, who often worked alone against an ever-changing scene of awesome power and beauty. In a variety of styles he depicted these men working in utmost proximity to nature. Even his landscapes and seascapes include at least an evocation of human presence, affirming man's position in the totality of nature.
Long before he came to Maine, Wyeth had developed a masterful capacity to portray the subtleties of light and shadow, and light may be considered the subject of many of his still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. The clear, brilliant northern light of the Maine coast, sometimes diffused through a view of fog, afforded the artist an endless number of opportunities to paint a favorite subject. Ann Wyeth McCoy remembers her father studying for hours from the porch of "Eight Bells" the changing scene before him as light and shadow passed over the sea and landscape. Often dramatic, always fascinating, the variations were an essential and exciting aspect of Wyeth's coastal experience.
In December 1939, Macbeth Gallery in New York City organized the first one-man exhibition of N. C. Wyeth's work. The artist's friend, pupil and son-in-law, Peter Hurd, contributed a short essay to the pamphlet that accompanied the exhibition. In it, Hurd wrote, "these works introduce for the first time publicly a new aspect of the art of N. C. Wyeth. They are the product of revolt against the inevitable limitations of that art of illustration which Mr. Wyeth has long served with sincerity and grace.But as the spiritual maturing of the man has demanded a freer and more personal expression, he has descended within himself to find its terms." (Peter Hurd, untitled introduction to exhibition checklist, In the Georges Islands, Maine: Paintings by N. C. Wyeth,Macbeth Gallery, New York, New York, 1939) Eleven of the twelve paintings Wyeth selected for the Macbeth exhibition were of Maine subjects. In these, he felt he had achieved at last significance lacking in his illustrative work, inspired by the richness of his Maine experiences. The coast of Maine challenged Wyeth and had stimulated him to produce some of his finest work. In Maine N. C. Wyeth found a more personally meaningful art, an art that also carried a universal, timeless appeal.
Adapted from N. C. Wyeth in Maine, A Centenary Exhibition, by Christine B. Podmaniczky, © Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine 1982