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Adventure Illustrated 

N.C. Wyeth and the Brandywine artists

As American literature came of age toward the end of the 19th century, the art of American illustration was following close at its heels, a half-step behind. A welcome new art book from Watson-Guptill Publications offers contemporary enthusiasts the first chance to see the works of the most prominent, groundbreaking school of illustrators finally presented as they looked when they were first painted on the artist's easel.

Visions of Adventure tracks the heyday of American illustration, beginning with turn-of-the-century adventure fiction and riding the wave of popularity that short stories and serialized novels enjoyed until television and movies usurped their place in living rooms and on bedside tables. The full-page illustrations chronicle a movement that began by tapping into European tales of knights and chivalry, took to the seas with pirate stories, and found its home in the New World with stories of American Indians and the Western frontier.

The book focuses on the work of N.C. Wyeth, the most prolific and best-known of Wilmington, Delaware's Brandywine School of artists. Also included in the collection are selected pieces from Howard Pyle, Harvey Dunn, Frank E. Schoonover, Philip R. Goodwin and Dean Cornwell. Pyle, the school's founder, was passionate about the art of illustration, seeing no distinction between his craft and the typically elevated field of fine art. Pyle pushed his students to raise the standards of the thriving industry, inducing them to put their efforts into work that would rarely be seen in its true form, let alone its true colors.

Although these works have long been familiar from original publications in novels such as Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans and in accompanying stories in magazines like Scribner's, Harper's Monthly and The Saturday Evening Post, the process of creating a small, black-and-white wood engraving for publication at often one-sixth the size of the original painting has kept the brilliant detail and careful coloring out of reach of the general reader or art aficionado.

Essays by editors John Edward Dell and Walt Reed and by curators and experts in the field including Elizabeth Hawkes and Victoria Manning accompany each of the full-page plates, addressing the context of the illustration and pointing out particularly noteworthy examples of the artists' craft. The writers make the work accessible to the general reader, giving us an appreciation for the quality of the work and the progression of the genre that far exceeds the casual oohs and aahs that simply looking at the paintings would induce.

Pyle immersed his students in the art of plein-air painting, emphasizing the use and variations of direct sunlight, and there was no better student than N.C. Wyeth. A quick trip through the pages of Wyeth paintings will familiarize readers with Wyeth's distinctive use of shadow and highlight, his juxtaposition of forboding characters against a brilliant, romanticized landscape, his unique palette of temperament-driven harmonies of color, and his penchant for illuminating his canvass with refracted light, creating magical sources of focus.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the collected works is their attention to self-contained storytelling. Wyeth and his colleagues were rarely content to simply complement a story. They took Pyle's compositional instruction and created scenes as vivid as a stage set, giving meticulous attention to costumes, props and backdrops. Their insistence on authenticity enthralled readers eager to enter an unknown world, but it also influenced future stage and screen productions. The Douglas Fairbanks film of The Black Pirate, for example, is filled with scenes based directly on illustrations from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, and Wyeth's original illustrations for Treasure Island were the basis for the costumes and sets in a 1990 television production featuring Charlton Heston.

Even more striking than the physical details, however, is the attention to attitude and feeling, the inner world of the characters the artists depicted. Pyle's school used the same psychological approach to painting that Konstantin Stanislavsky's was introducing to the world of acting: pushing artists to inhabit the mind of their characters as a way to better understand how to depict their visual reactions.

Artists like Wyeth and Schoonover took this "method painting" as far as they could, venturing out to the Southwestern and north Canadian frontiers, respectively, determined to heed Thoreau's charge to make their art reflect their experience, and Pyle's own admonition to experience life before painting it. As a result of their hands-on proximity, the Brandywine artists rejected the stereotypes of savage Indians and indomitable frontiersman, offering new sympathetic, if romaticized, interpretations.

Wyeth's experiences are of particular interest to Westerners, having drawn on two years' work as a cowboy and mailrunner in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. His "Hungry But Stern on the Depot Platform" could be a blueprint for Sergio Leone's opening scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. "For an artist to draw virile pictures, one must live virilely," Wyeth once stated, and this collection of works captures a dedicated corps of American illustrators fully immersed in the adventure that was their art.

-- owen@csindy.com

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