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N. C. Wyeth: A Biography Hardcover – September 14, 1998

4.7 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

N.C. Wyeth's wondrous paintings of The Last of the Mohicans, Robinson Crusoe, and Treasure Island have given visual form to these stories for generations of readers. Wyeth's extraordinary pictures still carry all the power they had in their heyday. And communal, millennial-bound nostalgia for the first half of the 20th century gives the paintings, if possible, an even more sentimental glow. This meticulous, encompassing study of the tempestuous, difficult, brilliant illustrator also delves into the entire clan of famous Wyeth artists, including Andrew (who was offered a bribe to delay his marriage), and Peter Hurd (who married Andrew's sister Henriette then escaped with her to New Mexico).

David Michaelis has done an extraordinary amount of research, and the book should mesmerize Wyeth fans. But he seems to doubt his own ability to make this dramatic material come alive, for he resorts to false suspense--using a baby's death and the suggestion of foul play on page 1 to hook the reader, but nearly 200 pages later allows that there's not really any evidence for his conjectures. And he liberally employs italics, giving the text an insistent tone that is at times intrusive. Nonetheless, Michaelis adroitly chronicles Wyeth's complicated, fraught relationship with his family. And he is especially perceptive in his analysis of N.C.'s stormy ties to his mentor, Howard Pyle. The artist's genteel inability to talk money, even during the Depression; his devotion to his neurotic mother; and the magical world of Chadd's Ford, where he watchfully, jealously raised his children, are all beautifully described. This is a valuable, multifaceted look at a passionate, difficult subject. In the end, Wyeth emerges, warts and all, as a complex individual, whose inner life was thoroughly entwined with every aspect of his art. --Peggy Moorman

From Publishers Weekly

The violent deaths of N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), arguably America's greatest illustrator, and his little grandson in a mysterious car accident contrasted markedly with his cozy, seemingly uneventful life, which was characterized beneath its placid surface by strong, ambivalent attachments to home and family. The son of a Massachusetts farmer and a Swiss-German immigrant, Wyeth began his professional career while studying under a giant of American picture making, Howard Pyle, and went on to become famous for his own editions of Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans and Robin Hood. All the while, he complained about the necessity of illustrating, which seemed to him a distraction from his true calling as a painter; from an early age, he raised his son Andrew to succeed where he had failed. Michaelis's graceful, informative but unfocused biography, which excerpts heavily from correspondence in the family archives, too often reads like a series of quotations, loosely stitched together. Absent consistent diagnoses, its repeated references to Wyeth's depressions and his mother's "nervous derangement" bog the narrative down and remain a puzzle. And although Michaelis (The Best of Friends) documents Wyeth's attempt to paint landscapes, he never addresses the question that was central to Wyeth's career: did his illustrations ever succeed as art? Michaelis identifies the source for some of Wyeth's most inspired illustrations; he even finds traits of Wyeth's difficult mother in his illustration of Treasure Island's reptilian Captain Pew. Still, the book offers too much evidence?that Wyeth was searching for a spiritual home, that Wyeth remained unfulfilled?and not enough summing up. Color and b&w plates not seen by PW.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 555 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679426264
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679426264
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #148,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I don't know if there is another Family that has continuously contributed to the world of art, and done so with such skill, as the 5 generations of Wyeths whose story is told in this work.
The title of my review may seem a bit odd but I believe those who read this book will find it appropriate. I read this book when it originally was published and then recently read it again. You need not be anything more than someone who loves to read to enjoy this book. While I am a great admirer of Mr. Andrew Wyeth's work and to a lesser extent other members of the Wyeth Family, I have no Art History education. The beauty of this work is that it is an incredible story on it's own, that additionally the story is true with 2 Wyeth Family members still painting, only enhances the reading. The fact this is not fiction makes the story all the more remarkable.
If you have already read about Mr. Andrew Wyeth's work you certainly will gain a great deal of insight as to why he may view his art as he does. Another wonderful book that focuses on Mr. Andrew Wyeth is by Richard Merryman, "Andrew Wyeth A Secret Life". It often seems that great artists in a range of artistic fields seem to have more than their share of drama in their lives. This is certainly the case with this 5 generational span of the Wyeths. There is also a great deal of tragedy and sadness.
Whether or not you are aware of or enjoy the work of The Wyeth Clan, they have and will continue to remain of great importance to Art History. Ranging from the illustrations by N.C Wyeth of dozens of books that are known to us all, to some of the most recognized images in the world as is the case with Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" from 1948, chances are you do know of the Wyeths.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although I was familiar with the paintings of Andrew & Jamie Wyeth, I wasn't aware of N.C. until I read his letters in Dorie McCullough Lawson's wonderful collection, "Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children." The brilliant writing in those letters, and the story of the tragic accident that killed him and his little grandson, made me want to know more. It led me to this book. I've just finished it, and can't stop thinking about it. If a novelist made up this saga, one might say it was just too fantastic. And yet the most fantastic thing of all is that it's true. David Michaelis weaves the tale, not just of N.C. Wyeth, but of his family and his times. Although so many people are introduced, the writing is clear and vibrant, and one never loses track of who's who. No novel could be more compelling than this saga, with twists and turns that almost had me gasping. Biography just doesn't get any better than this. Whether or not you're interested in Art, it is well worth your time. Bravo to Mr. Michaelis!
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By A Customer on December 21, 1998
Format: Hardcover
As a writer with the Philadelphia Inquirer, I have covered the Wyeth family extensively. I thought I knew everything about N.C. Wyeth, especially after reading Meryman's book on Andrew W. I thought I would get the same old background info, such as how N.C. home-schooled his kids, was a "super Dad," as Michaelis described him in a recent interview. I had read N.C. Wyeth's letters so I thought I knew all about his life before marriage. I was surprised how novel-like this bio is, not surprising since Michaelis is a novelist. (He says he has given up fiction though; he was in the middle of a stalled novel when he decided to write a magazine piece for Conte Nast Travel magazine about Chadds Ford. Then he thought of doing the bio.) I also love the 19th-century social history aspect of the book--Michaelis begins with N.C.'s grandparents. He also explains everything within a historical context (but not too heavy) so that when you read about the Wyeth's early life in New England, he mentions how others (i.e. neighbors) were also living their lives. In researching the book, Michaleis read everything from books on depression to Van Gough's letters. There is also one major family secret that every book review mentions. I wish I hadn't known about it before reading the book, because it was like reading a mystery and knowing the who-done-it.
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Format: Hardcover
Even if the Wyeths had had no artistic legacy, this book would still be fascinating. Michaelis tells a complex and engaging story set in a time of great change in America. Thouroughly entertaining and informative.
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Format: Paperback
As a child I was in love with the books he illustrated and the worlds in the pictures, as an adult I fell in love with the moments he created on canvas; and as a librarian, I realized his art helped the stories become real to the reader... The Brandywine school and the tradition of the artists can only be an American story, and a dynasty of artists and their complicated lives is only a fitting result of this insularity. This is an interesting examination of the generations of artists who are still influencing the world of American art and illustration. This is a good addition to the canon.
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Format: Paperback
My brother loaned me a copy of this book because we both collect American illustrations. That qualifies some of my enthusiasm for this book a bit. I am already a fan of the golden age(s) of American illustration.

The life of N. C. Wyeth is impressively detailed by the author. He mostly uses detailed and extensive letters written by the family to piece together what would seem a very accurate account of N.C.'s life. This book helped piece together some of the influences I assumed N.C. had throughout his life. From Pyle to the war, depression, to family, it was a very complicated life for the entire family. A great read with enough personal melodrama to keep it very interesting. My only complaint was the occasional writing quirk where the author sometime wrote of the future while writing mostly a chronological book. It's hard to describe, but readers will notice this and occasionally get a little confused by the style. That's my only negative comment. (And frankly, I do not see how this writing method could have been avoided since some of the information was necessary in order to piece the story together.)
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