Poems of Patriotism
N.C. Wyeth illustrations from 1922 poetry book now on view at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine
In 1922, following the devastation of World War I, Scribner’s publishing house sought to commemorate the valiant victory and the heroism of American soldiers by re-publishing Brander Matthews’ 1882 poetry compilation Poems of American Patriotism, which contained iconic works from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Francis Scott Key,walt Whitman and many others. With the war’s carnage still fresh in readers’ minds, Scribner’s cut some poems and added others, and decided to add illustrations that would invoke the patriotic spirit that runs through the poetry.the publishing powerhouse turned to one of its most bankable stars, N.c.wyeth, who had, within the previous decade, illustrated definitive editions of Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans and others.
The book was a sensational hit, but the story doesn’t end there.
The completed paintings—17 in all, including a frontispiece and a cover featuring an American doughboy in World War I—were eventually sold to an athletic director at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He later donated them to the school, which has displayed them in a dining hall for decades.the dining hall is slated for a renovation, so all 17 works from Poems of American Patriotism are on loan to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.the exhibition, N.c.wyeth:
Poems of American Patriotism, opens June 16 and continues through October 28. The Farnsworth was chosen for the temporary exhibition due to a previous exhibition of the works in 2010. For this second showing of the paintings, Farnsworth chief curator Michael Komanecky has completed additional scholarship related to the works, particularly in relation to the attitudes toward poetry during those pivotal years in the late-19th century and early20th century. It was a period before film and television, and even radio, when most Americans experienced the arts
through live performance, fine paintings and sculpture, books and poetry. “Diving into the paintings again
I was pleased to find a far richer and deeper story about the prevalence and popularity of poetry in middle-class culture beginning after the Civil War and continuing well into the 20th century,” Komanecky says.“it’s hard to imagine it today because poetry isn’t given that much attention, but poetry played a pivotal role in American culture, so much that students in every public school of the day were asked to read, study, recite and memorize poetry. I still bump into people, typically older people, who can recite poems from memory even to this day, and that was because they grew up in a time when poetry was critically important to American culture.” Komanecky continues:“it was in this period that is reflected so accurately in Poems of American Patriotism, which was beautifully illustrated by N.c.wyeth.” Illustrations include several famous Wyeth works: Paul Revere (Paul Revere’s Ride), showing Revere and his horse, all four feet airborne, galloping past a home that has been stirred awake by his warnings about the British army; The
Old Continentals, with its battle-ravaged colonists heroically standing amid the hazy fog of war; and Washington Reviewing His Troops, which shows General George Washington, his coat fluttering in a frigid gust of wind, inspecting a row of soldiers.the works are rendered in Wyeth’s unmistakable style, with his sense of movement, vibrant background colors and cinematic compositions.
“N.C. was a very deft painter.when he was preparing illustration for any book or article he did thorough research of the materials, including people and places, the subjects he selected…his paintings were about capturing his subjects in an idealized way. He knew the time and place he was depicting and he captured it wonderfully,” Komanecky says.“the paintings are roughly 40 inches high because he understood how the printing process worked, and how they would be photographed and reproduced. He painted a limited amount of detail where he had to.the images were reproduced in color, so his colors are very lively and bold. He knew how to paint so it would translate to the finished project, as did the people he learned from, people like Howard Pyle and Frank Schoonover.” The horrors of World War I, the event which precipitated the republication of the book, were certainly violent beyond comprehension—trench warfare, chemical weapons, larger and more destructive bombs and artillery—but those aspects are largely absent as Wyeth painted a more romantic notion of patriotism.“to me it’s an aspect of the works that stands out,” Komanecky says.“his depictions of heroes often in the midst of conflict and war, are sanitized.they don’t show the gruesomeness and the carnage of war, and it’s understandable for a number of reasons. It took restraint, especially when you think about the terrible devastation that was visited on people duringworldwar I— people had enough, and they wanted to look back on it all in a different way.”
The exhibition continues through October 28 in Maine.
N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Paul Revere (Paul Revere’s Ride), 1922. Oil on canvas, 40¼ x 30¼ in. Collection of The Hill School, Pottstown, PA.
N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Barbara Frietchie, 1922. Oil on canvas, 401/8 x 30 in. Collection of The Hill School, Pottstown, PA.
N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), O Captain! My Captain!, 1922. Oil on canvas, 397/8 x 301/8 in. Collection of The Hill School, Pottstown, PA.