Monday, August 3, 2015

Philadelphia/DC Tour and N.C. Wyeth

As I mentioned in my last post, I planned a trip to Washington DC and Philadelphia to appear at screenings of CHEATIN', with a side trip to see the Brandywine River Museum.

In Washington DC I returned to the AFI Cinema, which is actually located in Silver Springs, Maryland (a suburb of Washington).  I've been there a number of times for the Environmental Film Festival, and this time we had a great crowd and an excellent response to CHEATIN'.

                                              The AFI Silver Theater in Silver Springs

                             Signing for fans in DC - my thanks to Bruce Guthrie for the photos!

My next venue was a small multiplex in Philadelphia, The Roxy - a nice, large crowd greeted me there.  I have a lot of "phans" in Philly, apparently.

The next day, my wife and son and I picked up a rental car and drove to Chadds Ford, PA, and the famed Brandywine River Museum, home to collections of art from both N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth.

I've been a fan of N.C. Wyeth ever since I discovered his work while in college - although, as a kid I'm sure I enjoyed his art from books like "Treasure Island" and "Robin Hood" before I was aware of him.  When I became an illustrator myself in NYC in the early 1970's, that's when I became obsessed with his art - he was one of the true geniuses of illustration.

Chadds Ford is not so much a town, it's more like a collection of antique stores and restaurants along Route 1 in rural Pennsylvania.  The Brandywine River Museum itself is a newly-constructed modernist structure that uses part of a 19th century stable as its entrance.

It's situated next to the beautiful, crystal clear stream of the Brandywine with three floors - the first floor shows the history of paintings from the area - portraits, local landscapes and some gorgeous illustrations by Howard Pyle.  He is considered the father of American illustration, and was also a great teacher and an influence for N.C. Wyeth.

The second floor is the N.C. Wyeth floor, and on the third floor are paintings from N.C.'s son, the famous Andrew Wyeth, and Andrew's equally famous son, Jamie Wyeth.  Now, I'm a big fan of both Andrew and Jamie ("Christina's World" is one of my favorites) but I was here mainly to see N.C. Wyeth's work up close, which I've never done before.

As I entered the room and glanced across the panorama of famous art, my body glowed with anticipation.  OMG!  OMG!  OMG!  Look at the beautiful artwork!  I started with the famous piecce of the Indian paddling his canoe - I've stupidly forgotten the title, but it's a classic.

Then I spied 10 large paintings from the book "Treasure Island", written by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I also saw some gorgeous paintings from "Kidnapped" and "Robin Hood".  I kept saying "Stop, please!  No more masterpieces!  My brain can't take it!"  But then, at the end, I was totally addicted - I need more, I need more N.C. Wyeth!

Near the end of the exhibition, I saw some of his more impressionistic work.  One of the sad parts of his life was his failure to connect as a "serious" artist.  The big art shows always rejected his independent paintings and he felt shunned by the art community's attitude toward his art, which is too bad because he could paint circles around the "fine art" painters of his day.  (I read where Van Gogh was a huge fan of N.C.'s teacher, Howard Pyle.)

So they hung some of N.C.'s more artistic works - they're very impressionist, similar to Monet paintings, but they lack the power and skill of his illustration work.  There were also some examples of his later "fine art", and those pieces had a sort of Grant Wood/Thomas Hart Benton feel.  I liked them a lot, but I kept being drawn back to his earlier illustrations.

As an animator, I really enjoyed his use of design and shadow - they are so simple in the layout, yet he really controls the eye and makes you look where he wants you to look.  He leaves broad parts of the canas in shadow and then uses bright sunlight to drive the story home.

He was a consummate storyteller - I would have loved to see him make a film.  In fact, it's acknowledged that films like "Robin Hood", "Treasure Island" and "Mysterious Island" used his paintings as reference for design and mood.

After the viewing (I went through the gallery twice) I needed to refresh myself in the beautiful Brandywine River - so I swam to the middle and just drifted, imagining I was in the middle of the Sherwood Forest of N.C. Wyeth's imagination.  I also imagined that N.C. himself might have taken a dip in the river, jumping off the very same tree that I did.

One surprise bonus exhibition at the museum was a showing of 100 year old political cartoons, which included work from some of my favorite artists - Thomas Nast, Charles Dana Gibson, Rube Goldberg and Milt Gross.  Plus, cartoons from two of the masters of pen and ink - Edward Kemble and the amazing A.B. Frost.  Wow, what a day!

If you're ever outside Philadelphia or Wilmington, DE, please try to visit the Brandywine River Museum.  It will amaze you!

--Bill Plympton

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