N.C. Wyeth & the Profound Requirement of the Artist

“Dear Andy,” N.C. Wyeth began the letter to his 26-year-old artist son.

There were many things to say. Not of family matters, though Ma was very well, he noted. But of art and life.

He had been feeling, N.C. Wyeth wrote, a melancholy he couldn’t shake. The air and land around his studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania were wintery, drab, and somber. To remedy his mood, he had turned his spare time over to reading Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, and Goethe.

They were, to him, generous minds who “radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of the artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant. Let the motive for action be in the action itself and not in the event,” Mr. Wyeth told his son.

For N.C. Wyeth, his periods of creating with strength and beauty came without a thought to the outcome. “Anyone who creates for effect – to score a hit – does not know what he’s missing!”

This modern world was thick with distractions and overstimulations, he continued. But the things worth discovering in the mind and the heart “only rise to the surface among quiet conditions, in which one thought grows beside another and one has time to compare and reflect.”

Periods of melancholy, bleak thinking were part of the process. “Depth of style,” Mr. Wyeth wrote deep into the letter, “can only spring from a deepening of our emotional life.”

And so it was not the outcomes of things that mattered, but the significance of things. A great painting, he believed, was one that enriched and enhanced life, “made it higher, wider, deeper.”

We have a real task on our hands, N.C. Wyeth concluded to Andrew Wyeth. Critics like art that is flat and shallow – “like it as they like soft-drinks and factory-made bread.” And they loathe “intensity, distinction, fire …they fear disturbance!”

But the profound requirement of the artist would not be fulfilled by working for critics or outcomes. Art of strength and beauty came from a richer, vaster way of working and being in the world. Or, as N.C. Wyeth put it:

“To live! To keep one’s eyes wide open in wonder, to be surprised by things!”

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