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Wyeth casts shadow on Needham Library

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By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Staff

The library, it might seem, would be the last place to embrace individuals in the business of judging books by their covers. Exceptions can be made, of course, for the extraordinary. It so happens that the work of N.C. Wyeth is just that.

Hang a left after going through the Highland Avenue entrance of the Library, and you'll find yourself in a silent, comfortable room awash in natural light. Keeping watch over the newspaper-reading visitors are a number of striking oil paintings. This is the N.C. Wyeth Room, a quiet memorial to one of Needham's more famous native sons. Wyeth, an illustrator and realist painter working around the turn of the century, found his earliest inspiration in town.

Newell Convers Wyeth was born in Needham in 1882 and was quick to fall for its natural beauty. His mother, who was familiar with such local literary luminaries as Longfellow and Thoreau, had an outsized influence on her son, steering him towards a lifelong reverence for the arts and nature.

"The sheep-like tendency of human society soon makes inroads on a child's unsophistications, and then popular education completes the dastardly work with its systematic formulas, and away goes the individual, hurtling through space into that hateful oblivion of mediocrity," Wyeth once said, channeling the Transcendentalist spirit of Thoreau. "We are pruned into stumps, one resembling another, without character or grace."

Wyeth would eventually leave Needham at the age of 20 to study with Howard Pyle, a seminal 19th Century illustrator, in Wilmington, Delaware and Chadds Ford, PA. Within five months, he had secured his first high-profile cover for The Saturday Evening Post. The commission would be the first of many, the beginning of a long, legendary career in which he worked for both publishers and corporate clients (Coca Cola, Lucky Strike and Corn Flakes among them).

The Needham Library's collection represents only a small portion of Wyeth's canon, but a compelling one nonetheless. There is ample food for thought among the canvases.

Sitting above the room's fireplace, there is the melodramatic and eye-catching "The Black Dragon," an illustration for James Connolly's short story, "The Rakish Brigantine."

There is "The Poacher," a painting that seems far more candid in tone than Wyeth's more sensational illustrations. (Indeed, it may have been too candid for his subject's comfort - a note on the back of the canvas reads: "The Poacher, Herb Jenkins, who was never known to continue poaching after this picture was published on a magazine cover in Pennsylvania.")

"A Fine Boy and His Mother," another illustration for a Connolly story, seems as though it may have been chosen for its subject's similarity to himself. "He was a fine boy - an imaginative boy, with great dreams in his head," reads the quote from which Wyeth drew inspiration for his work.

There are more to appreciate, of course - all uniquely "Wyeth" in their own way.

Wyeth would eventually return to live in Needham later in life, but not for long.

It turned out that the great artist was a man caught in transition. The horses and buggies around which he had grown up had given way to automobiles (which he decried as "vibrating machines"). Illustration, which had been a major industry during the 19th century, had given way to photography. Meanwhile, in the years since his departure, Wyeth's beloved Needham had transformed itself from a pastoral community into a burgeoning cosmopolitan suburb. It was a transition the artist was not prepared to deal with, and one he ultimately could not stomach. After two years, Wyeth and his family moved back to Chadds Ford, where he would live out the rest of his days.

Today, Chadds Ford is an epicenter of Wyeth scholarship. The Brandywine River Museum of Art houses an impressive collection of his work and maintains the studios of both Wyeth and his son, Andrew (a brilliant artist in his own right).

Still, it seems appropriate that a part of Wyeth would always remain in his native Needham. "I find the earliest years of my life," reflected the artist later in his career, "are the source of my best inspiration."

The N.C. Wyeth Room at the Needham Free Public Library is always open to readers and art enthusiasts alike in search of their own inspiration.

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