‘The Wyeths: A Family Legacy’ at the Fenimore in Cooperstown


Cooperstown, NY:  Where the Susquehanna flows from Lake Otsego 7/29/12
Cooperstown, NY: Where the Susquehanna flows from Lake Otsego 7/29/12

          For many who read – or had read to them – the N.C. Wyeth illustrated editions of Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper and the like, the pictures shaped the understanding of the tales.  I loved his pictures.

           Seeing ‘The Burial of Uncas’ as a large canvas in the Fenimore Art Museum’s delight-filled ‘The Wyeths: A Family Legacy’ stirred even more emotion than it had, 55 years ago, when I read The Last of the Mohicans.  More tragedies than one find memorials in this brightly lit painting.

           I find relatively few people know of the Fenimore.  Those that do, know it well.  I found this by the Chief Curatorial Officer of the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis:

When the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, asked about borrowing the Eiteljorg’s painting of The Burial of Uncas by N. C. Wyeth, we were happy to oblige. The Fenimore is an important museum and they were producing a major exhibit on art of the extended Wyeth family. Happily, several members of our staff went to graduate school in Cooperstown and had deep familiarity with collections of the Fenimore Art Museum.

           The Fenimore’s homage covers a bit over 120 years with about 40 pictures, all well-chosen.  Quibbles apart, I only wish the Fennimore had reproduced all the items on its website.

           N.C. Wyeth learnt his trade from a writer-illustrator named Howard Pyle.  The exhibit acknowledges the Wyeths’ debt to Pyle, one that extends to the present generation, with two dramatic paintings that illustrated long-forgotten short stories that ran in magazines around 1900.

           A wonderful poster N.C. did of a mounted cowboy posting a letter in an adapted Cream of Wheat wooden box reinforces the knock on the artist as merely commercial.  Yes, the poster appeared in thousands of stores over 20 years.  But remove the logo, and it’s still equal to the best of Remington.

           A lovely painting of a stone barn near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, reminds me of so many of his contemporary realists in the northeast and eastern Canada.  It is superb but not unique.

         Maybe the best N.C. Wyeth in the show is ‘A Fox in Snow’, a view from the north toward the bridge in Concord, Mass., where the Revolution began.  Its haunting emptiness, its fields where trees now crowd in, reminds me of Brueghel’s hunter in winter.  But there’s no home in sight.  Only snow wastes.  

Henriette Wyeth, 'The Portrait of a Lady' (1947)
Henriette Wyeth, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (1947)

           For me the revelation of the show was the paintings of Henriette Wyeth, N.C.’s daughter and the wife of Peter Hurd.  Henriette is represented by two paintings of flowers that are exquisite but don’t move me much.  But her portraits….

           The first is a small portrait of Betty Winston, a neighbor in New Mexico where Henriette spent most of her career.  Winston’s face is arresting against a long drylands horizon.  I can’t find an image of this painting, sadly.  But ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (1947) gives the idea and of her feeling for flowers.

           The second is a stunner: ‘Portrait of my Father’ (1937).  A large canvas, Henriette sits her father in his studio in front of what became one of his most famous Maine paintings.  The intensity of the man, the sharply critical expression, seem naked, jarring in contrast to her almost pastoral rendering of ‘Island Funeral’ (1939).

           There’s much more to savour in the Wyeth exhibit which only runs through Labor Day.  The Fenimore’s American painting gallery has gem after gem.  And, the main gallery’s ‘folk art’ exhibit has far more to arrest attention than one expects.  

           Any excuse to visit Cooperstown will be rewarded in far more ways than one.  It’s a wonderful town to wander.  Set on Lake Otsego, Upstate’s most beautiful lake, and next to Cherry Valley, it’s as beautiful an area as any in the northeast.