Born in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1882, N.C. Wyeth began studying art at a young age, most notably at Howard Pyle's School of Illustration in Wilmington, Delaware. After less than two years of Pyle's instruction, Wyeth's work began to appear in national magazines, including on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The artist’s first book commission came in 1911, illustrating Treasure Island for publisher Charles Scribner. His work was so well received that he was hired to illustrate a range of books which came to be known as "Scribner's Classics," including Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, The Boy's King Arthur and The Last of the Mohicans. Throughout his career, Wyeth also produced cover and story illustrations for the most notable magazines of the era, among them Harper's, Scribner's and Collier's.
The Prospector was featured as the cover of The Popular Magazine on November 23, 1912. Wyeth executed several covers for the magazine starting in 1909. As in many of his most successful covers, in the present work Wyeth evokes a dramatic story of adventure and discovery. Here a daring yet wizened explorer ventures into the mountainous American landscape to make his fortune. With axe in hand, the pioneer stands proudly on a rocky outcrop, gazing into the distance with just his pack animal by his side. Having taken off his wide-brimmed hat, his determined facial expression is illuminated by the uninhibited sunlight of the clear day. Skillfully positioned by the artist upon a peak, forcing the viewer to look up at his subject, the prospector appears heroically larger than life. The scene is unified by Wyeth's bold style: "His color is rich, warm and freshly harmonious. He has an extraordinary skill at capturing the quality of light itself, not merely its symbolic representation in the arrangement of planes and their shadows, and he exercised it to the fullest, with an almost offhand delight in his mastery. His compositions are massive, with the play of great bodies, or look of rock, or rise of tree, or the bulk of something fashioned by builders. There is substance to his forms and reality to his objects." (D. Allen and D. Allen, Jr., N.C. Wyeth, New York, 1972, p. 11)
The spirit of adventure and realistic atmosphere of The Prospector reflect Wyeth’s own experiences in the Western wilderness. Wyeth was inspired by the works of Frederic Remington and, after graduating from art school, took advantage of the opportunity to make the trek to Colorado and Arizona for the first time in 1904. Upon his arrival, Wyeth enthusiastically immersed himself in all aspects of Western life, exploring trails through the mountains, driving a stage, riding on the range and spending time at trading posts. He reflected in a letter home to a friend, “This trip will no doubt be the most beneficial thing that could possibly have happened...My pictures I can vouch now are authentic and true to life." (as quoted in N.C. Wyeth's Wild West, exhibition catalogue, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1990, p. 54)
Indeed, Wyeth’s experiences in the West, coupled with his unique approach to visual storytelling, established the artist among the leading illustrators of the twentieth century. The Prospector exemplifies the exciting imagery of adventure and discovery for which Wyeth has become best known.