Boats both rowed and sailed converge on a distinctly Maine island: a hump of rock, with some scrubs of trees but mostly barren, a simple residence located at its central, northernmost point. The sailboats anchor in the turquoise sea; the rowboats dragged up by their mates clutter the drab sand of the shore; and several indistinct figures make their way to the house surrounded by a makeshift maze of stone walls, a muted, impassive sky above.
It is a crisp, solemn depiction, the island version of one of life’s few sureties — death.
But the 1939, egg tempera and oil on hardboard, “Island Funeral,” is also illustrative of its artist’s range of style and emotion. Described aptly as an “ideal marriage of illustration and modern painting,” it is one of the central pieces of “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives,” at the Portland Museum of Art. On view through January 12, 2020, the traveling exhibit is the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in nearly 50 years.
The patriarch of his artistically gifted family — most notably his son, the celebrated realist Andrew Wyeth — N.C. Wyeth was one of the most commercially successful artists of his time. Yet despite — or more likely because of — that fact, he was largely shunned by fine art institutions and traditional art critics.
And while some of his commissions, including those made for The Saturday Evening Post, the National Biscuit Company and Bank of America, have an unmistakably slick, commercial feel, the PMA exhibit depicts his diversity of style, tone and color, as well as his changing perspectives over the course of his life.
To that end, the show, that was curated by PMA’s Jessica May and Christine B. Podmaniczky of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, is laid out in five distinct chapters.
Born in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1882, Wyeth early became a pupil of Howard Pyle, who urged him to visit the American west for inspiration; indeed, Wyeth did, and spent his late teens and early 20s working as a cowboy moving cattle and doing ranch chores, while also visiting the Navajo in Arizona. In 1903, at just 20 years old, his first commission appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. “Bucking Bronco” was a rollicking depiction of just that, and Wyeth went on to do many more oil on canvases interpreting the wild, boisterous nature of the west.
In contrast to these were his Native American pieces of the same time period. For instance, “In the Crystal Depths,” portrays a solitary Navajo, head bowed, navigating an elegantly detailed canoe along a calm river, while “The Silent Burial” shows a figure standing solemnly, yet resolutely, beside a hole dug in the snowy earth; he wears only a loincloth and appears to be eyeless.
By 1911, the established illustrator began a series of commissioned pieces to accompany editions of classic literature. Most notable among these — making him famous, while also considered by some to be his best work — was a set for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”