‘Wyeth Vertigo’: A Head-Spinning Show at the Shelburne Museum


Barnesville, Ohio:  Abandoned farmhouse 8/21/13
Barnesville, Ohio: Abandoned farmhouse 8/21/13

          In ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences’ (1895), Mark Twain did in the literary reputation of the author of Last of the Mohicans (1826):

[The rules of literature] require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.  But this detail has often been overlooked in [Cooper’s books].[1]

           From childhood, I found Cooper unreadable, along with Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau.  For me, one person raises two of these literary corpses from the dead:  the painter, N.C. Wyeth, as I wrote here.

           The Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown, New York, had a fine extended Wyeth family retrospective which ended Labor Day.  The Webb Gallery in the Shelburne Museum (just south of Burlington, Vermont) is offering Wyeth Vertigo (through October 31), a show of similar scope to the Fenimore’s.

           It is a measure of the family’s talents that the two shows complimented each other.  Rather than making me feel surfeited, they made me eager to explore more deeply N.C., Henriette and Andrew.


           The perspective of Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Soaring’ (1942-50) inspired the Shelburne exhibit.

           In ‘Soaring’, three turkey buzzards circle an isolated farmhouse surrounded by bare, rolling fields in a snowless winter landscape.  The viewer looks down and from the back of the nearest buzzard from a height that makes the house appear postage-stamp size.

           For all its familiarity, ‘Soaring’ deserves its place at the center of ‘Wyeth Vertigo’.  No photograph delivers its sense of menace, its message of human insignificance and vulnerability.

           Andrew painted ‘Soaring’ during and just after World War II.  The suggestion of hostile aircraft looking for a target, the notes accompanying the painting say, isn’t coincidental.  Then, too, turkey buzzards were much less common due to DDT and, hence, more threatening.  And, southern Pennsylvania would have seen few of them in winter before warming.  Something dead – or about to be – held the buzzards north.

           Two years before Andrew began ‘Soaring’, in 1940, N.C. chose a similar perspective to illustrate the first landfall of Capt. Bligh and the Bounty’s crew who’d been set adrift with him:  ‘This was the only bit of land anywhere about….’

           Seen from 500 feet above and perhaps two hundred yards away, the huddled groups, their improvised tents and their small boats crowd a dot of sand surrounded by vast Pacific wastes.  As in so many of his illustrations, here N.C. captures dozens of pages of Mutiny on the Bounty in a single, haunting image.[2]

           I understand why one would organise an exhibit of this type by the individual artists.  But it would have better made its points about vertigo – a term the Shelburne uses loosely to include fear and claustrophobia – had they grouped pictures thematically – placing ‘This Was’ next to ‘Soaring’.


           The juxtaposition of N.C.’s two early paintings, ‘Upper Snow Platform’ (1906) and ‘The Eight Miners’ (1908) reveals how early menace figured in the Wyeth family work.

           The first shows men shoveling away a mountain of snow blocking an unseen train’s path.  They work at several levels, and you look upward across thirty feet of snow to a small patch of sky.  The threat of collapse is all about you.

           In ‘The Eight Miners’, you are looking back toward a group of men struggling through snow on a mountain’s steep slope.  The dark foreground contrasts with the eerie yellow light of a northern sun – likely the only gold the miners will see – framed by the mountains behind them.  The closest men wear the same coats, hats and outer belts as the shovelers did. 

          As with ‘Soaring’, the viewer supplies the intensity of danger in these two paintings. 


          The articles I encounter as I fact check these essays are one of the rewards of my avocation.

          I googled ‘Soaring’ and found Stanford professor Alexander Nemerov’s fascinating article, ‘The Glitter of Night Hauling: Andrew Wyeth in the 1940s’ in Antiques.[2]  ‘Night Hauling’ (1944) is at the Shelburne and, alone, would justify a visit.

          (I won’t attempt to summarise Nemerov’s compelling thesis.  After reading him, you will not look at Andrew Wyeth – or his contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock – in quite the same way.)

          In my mental reorganisation of the Shelburne show, I would place ‘Night Hauling’ next to N.C.’s ‘Dark Harbor Fishermen’ (1943).  In both the menace is implied.

          In ‘Night Hauling’, you know that pulling lobster pots from the ocean floor is hard, dangerous work.  But only the caption can tell you that it is doubly dangerous at night, since the man is likely hauling other lobstermen’s traps.

          In ‘Dark Harbor Fishermen’, three have rowed dories to one filled to its gunnels with bait fish.  It could be a genre painting but for its darkness, its lack of a horizon.  The men’s faces lack identifiable features.

          A mob of gulls – some on the wing – waits to snatch away the bait.  They belie the stillness of the human scene.  They embody the indifferent forces that govern the fishers’ success or failure, life or death.[3] Staring at it, I could only think of Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat.

          There is much more to say about other pictures in the show, but I’m way out of time.  Go, see for yourself.


           Finally, I must note some reservations about the Shelburne show and shows of its type elsewhere.

           According to Art New England, renovations are in the Shelburne Museum’s near future.  That’s good news, for the Webb Gallery feels dreary, beat up and out-moded.  The lighting of some pictures, especially in the N.C. Wyeth room, is so poor I had to stand at odd angles to minimise glare.

           The Shelburne omits the remarkable Henriette Wyeth, probably for thematic reasons.  But it does include a minor work by her husband, Peter Hurd, to note that Hurd introduced the Wyeths to an egg tempera technique which added dramatic intensity to their work.  The Fenimore’s texts went to considerable lengths to explain the technique’s impact. 

           The Shelburne text spotlights a problem common to almost all shows lacking a catalogue:  The captioning of the pictures and the wall texts are of necessity perfunctory.  Where N.C. is concerned, the Shelburne texts could be thought dismissive.[4]

           So, some homework on the exhibit beforehand would serve you well.

           But you can’t do much since, like the Fenimore, the Shelburne does not list on its website – or in a handout – the pictures it presents.  Only six images from ‘Wyeth Vertigo’ appear on its website, one of which (‘Dark Harbor Fishermen’) is inexplicably cropped.  The Fenimore offered even fewer web images for a show of a similar size.


           Kvetching aside, ‘Wyeth Vertigo’ is well worth the trip to Shelburne.  The Museum deserves the generous reviews this show has received.



          1.  I first saw this quotation in Sunday’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac (Sept. 15, 2013).  I’d credited W.C. (‘…dragging my canoe behind me…’) Fields with parodying Cooper into oblivion.

          2.  The linked Antiques page doesn’t give publication data for Nemerov’s piece.  His CV says: ‘“The Glitter of Night Hauling: Andrew Wyeth in the 1940s,” Antiques 179 (May/June 2012): 146-55[.]’

          3.  Project Gutenberg Australia has reproduced several (all?) of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for The Bounty Trilogy.  None was familiar to me, and only a couple seemed up to his Scribner’s standards of the 1920s.

          4.  I found in my Google wanderings a wonderful, vast compilation of N.C.’s marine paintings and illustrations on the shipping news site, gCaptain.com.  You can easily lose an hour – two, even – in these.  It is yet another proof of how astonishingly prolific and consistently interesting N.C. was.