Discussing his approach to the illustration of literature, N.C. Wyeth wrote that it is the illustrator's purpose to "be engaged as a potent addition to an author's works and not merely a collection of pictures starring for themselves, bent on dividing the reader's attention and further depleting the splendid illusions created by the textConsequently his initial demand of the illustrator is to strike at the very heart of a story; to paint in livid colors and masses, bold statements of the important characters." ("A Suggestion and a Comment on Illustrating Fiction," New York Times, October 13, 1912) Perhaps no better statement describes Wyeth's iconic 1920 Robinson Crusoe illustrations, offered here at auction for the first time. Using a vivid tonal palette applied with his characteristically pragmatic yet painterly brushstroke, Wyeth illustrated Daniel Defoe's classic adventure tale with a vigor that parallels and compliments the drama of the story's shipwrecked hero, Crusoe.
Wyeth writes in his "Illustrator's Preface" to the book that the "outstanding appeal of this fascinating romance to me personally is the remarkably sustained sensation one enjoys of Crusoe's contact with the elements--the sea and the sun, the night and the stormsIn few books can the reader breathe, live and move with his hero so intensely, so easily and so consistently throughout the narrative. In Robinson Crusoe we have it; here is a story that becomes history, history living and moving, carrying with it irresistibly the compelling motive of a lone man's conquest over what seems to be inexorable Fate." (Robinson Crusoe, New York, 1920, n.p.)
Wyeth was first instructed by Howard Pyle, the "father of American illustration," at his eponymous school of art. Under Pyle's tutelage, Wyeth honed his technical skills while developing his innate ability for narrative and drama on the canvas. Pyle thought illustration the only authentically American art form, and subsequently instilled in Wyeth a sense of confidence and daring demonstrated here in Robinson Crusoe. As Christine B. Podmaniczky writes, Pyle "taught the 'tricks' of his trade, such as his hallmark emphasis on dramatic moment by marking it in stark contrast between bright light and deep shadow, a forceful use of diagonals in the composition, and the placement of figures in the foreground to lure the viewer into the picture." (N.C. Wyeth: Catalogue Raisone of Paintings, vol. one, London, 2008, p. 23)
Wyeth's ability to deftly encapsulate a crucial narrative moment is demonstrated in two studies for the cover of Robinson Crusoe. A plea for salvation, Wyeth's cover makes palpable the despair of shipwrecked disaster. Wyeth structures the composition with strong, forceful diagonals depicting the story's hero, who reaches up to the sky. The effervescent sea violently ruptures behind him. Perhaps Wyeth was inspired by chapter two's events, as Crusoe narrates: "I expected every wave would have swallowed us upand in this agony of mind I made many vows and resolutions, that if it would please God here to spare my life this one voyage." (Robinson Crusoe, p. 9) We see here Wyeth's signature bold contrasts as the figure is enveloped in dark in a churning sea, succinctly capturing the essence of Crusoe's harrowing tribulations.
Wyeth's endpaper illustration expresses the loneliness and destitution of Crusoe's ship-wrecked fate. In contrast to the cover's drama, here the sea is calm and bucolic, Crusoe's separation from family and familiarity emphasized by the starkness of Wyeth's compositional structure. Fully foregrounded, Crusoe seems minute in contrast to the vast sea and open sky. Through Wyeth's detailed depiction of the foreground's elements, we can almost hear the softly breaking waves and feel the sun's radiating white-hot heat. A sense of hope pervades this picture, as the figure looks out at an almost completely abstracted background dominated by the light blue sea and bright white sky.
As James Duff writes, "Wyeth wants us to see that those people close to the land have an understanding of forces affecting them, that through observation of and participation in nature they are equipped to deal with the vagaries of human experience." (Not for Publication: Landscapes, Still Lifes, and Portraits by N.C. Wyeth, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1982) Crusoe's innate resiliency and understanding of nature and the elements is evident in Wyeth's illustrations. Whether portraying Crusoe battling the elements or successfully overcoming the obstacles of his shipwrecked state, Wyeth depicts the novel's most dramatic moments with his characteristic vivid brushwork and palette.
"The artistic powers of an illustrator spring from the same source as do the powers of the painter," writes Wyeth in his 1912 New York Times article. "But the profound difference lies in the fact that the illustrator submits his inspiration to a definite end; the painter carries his into infinitude." Wyeth's illustrations do not distract us, but prompt our imaginations to see Defoe's story as "history living and moving," and continue to inspire readers to this day. Wyeth's illustrated editions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island are still in print, and influenced many artists and illustrators who followed. John A. Parks writes that "illustration's requirements of realist drawing, narrative clarity, and sheer entertainment were to have their effect on American painting throughout the next century... The strong current of realism and narrative painting in American art, which continues to this day, owe an enormous debt to the flowering of illustration..." (American Artist, "The Golden Age of American Illustration," June 2006, p. 33)
Wyeth sold his Robinson Crusoe illustrations as a group to the Wilmington Institute Library in 1921. Offered here for the first time since then, the Wilmington Institute Library sought the paintings as they represent a seminal moment in American illustration history. In November 1919, Wyeth excitedly wrote his brother, Stimson, that the Cosmopolitan Book Corporation planned on returning his Robinson Crusoe originals after they had been reproduced. These illustrations were especially affecting for Wyeth, as they conjured images of his childhood in Needham, Massachusetts. "Now I recall vividly," wrote Wyeth to painter Sidney Chase about the comission, "the many Sunday afternoons at home when we played Robinson Crusoe to the muted strings of my uncle's violin." (The Wyeths, The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, Boston, Massachusetts, 1971, p. 637) With his passionate brushwork and vibrant tonalities, Wyeth's enduring style makes palpable Crusoe's momentous voyage with a ferocity that impinges even today's viewer.