ProvenanceMetLife, Inc. Corporate Collection (Commissioned for New York offices)
Heather James Fine Art, New York
ExhibitionNew York, NY, 1985, no. 13, "Coming of the Mayflower"
Literature"The Days of the Pilgrims Live Again in Our Murals," The Home Office (publication of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.), vol. 23. no. 7 (Dec. 1941)
N. C. Wyeth, Income Tax Notes for 1941 (unpublished, Brandywine River Museum Library)
Douglas Allen and Douglas Allen, Jr., N. C. Wyeth, The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals (New York: Crown Publishers, 1972),...More... ps. 169-172, illus. b/w p. 169
Robert San Souci, N. C. Wyeth's Pilgrims (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1991), detail illus. On frontispiece
Christine B. Podmaniczky, N. C. Wyeth, A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings (London: Scala, 2008), M.67, p. 629
About The Coming of the Mayflower in 1620
N.C. Wyeth’s extraordinary skills as an illustrator were borne of impeccable draftsmanship and as a painter, his warmly rich, harmonious sense of color, and ability to capture the quality of light itself. But it is his unmatched artistry in vivifying story and character with a powerful sense of mood that we admire most of all — the ability to transport himself to the world and time of his creation and to convey it with a beguiling sense of conviction. That ability is as apparent in the compositional complexities of Treasure Island’s “One More Step, Mr. Hands!” as it is here, in the summary account of a square-rigged, seventeenth-century merchant ship tossed upon the seas. The Coming of the Mayflower in 1620 is a simple statement of observable facts, yet Wyeth’s impeccable genius as an illustrator imbues it with the bracing salt air and taste that captures the adventuresome spirit of the men and women who are largely credited with the founding of America. That spirit is carried on the wind and tautly billowed sails, the jaunty heeling of the ship at the nose of a stiff gale, the thrusting, streamed-limned clouds, and the gulls jauntily arranged to celebrate an arrival as they are the feathered angels of providence guiding it to safe harbor.
Before there was television and of a time when film was still in its infancy, N. C. Wyeth’s illustrations electrified the stories he visually shaped and annotated. As a young reader of “Treasure Island,” who can deny the urgency to read on to the next glossy illustration? Or, in excited anticipation, thumb through the pages repeatedly to the pictures ahead, so alive and vivid and full of bravado?
In 1939, The Metropolitan Life Company offered Wyeth a commission of a different sort; a series of canvas murals that would rely less on bravado, perhaps, but instead, on a deep sense of time and place. They would offer an energetic and grand vision and express the spirit of national pride by celebrating the strong values that express what it means to be American. Wyeth was thrilled. The fourteen mural panels he agreed to produce would bring the world of Pilgrims to glowing life and “serve as a graphic and dramatic expression of the spirit of New England” (Douglas Allen, et al., N. C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations, and Murals, pg. 169). Wyeth, an artist of unparalleled skill and fully invested in the authenticity of the characters that populate his narratives, relished the opportunity to convey the pride he felt toward his ancestral past.
“The romance of early colonization, especially that of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, had always excited me. My ancestor, Nicholas Wyeth, came from Wales to Massachusetts in 1647. The spirit of early days on the Massachusetts coast was an oft-discussed subject in my home. I was born in Needham, not far from the town of Plymouth, to which I made many pilgrimages during my boyhood, spending thrilling days in and around that historic territory. With this as a background, it was natural that in my mind and heart should fly to Plymouth and to the Pilgrims as a fitting subject for a series of New England paintings. If then, the warmth and appeal of these paintings is apparent to those who study them, it is principally because they are, in some related way, a statement of my own life and heritage.” (Douglas Allen, et al., N. C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, pg. 171)
N.C. Wyeth had achieved preeminence as a mural painter earlier in the 1930s. But the scale and scope of the so-called “New England Series” is a landmark achievement. The story he tells is of shared community, of family, of differing cultures, and courage in the face of great adversity. Installed throughout the common areas of the company’s North Building New York headquarters on Madison Square, the panels were placed at eye level so that they not only served as companions for hundreds of MetLife employees but as invitations to enter the scenes vicariously. The murals remained virtually unseen by the public until 1986 when they were removed, conserved, and exhibited at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, New York. Still later, in 1991, reproductions of the murals inspired an author to write an accompanying text for N. C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims, a landscape-formatted storybook that utilizes reproductions of the panels to illustrate the bravery of one hundred and two passengers who arrived, and whose ranks were reduced by half their number the first winter, weathered illness, privation, and adversity of every kind to endure and become what is essentially the founding of America.
Wyeth was to devote much of his last years to the Metropolitan Life murals. Yet he was not destined to see its completion when his life ended tragically on a railroad crossing during a morning drive in October 1945. Intent upon seeing his father’s final project finished, son Andrew and son-in-law, John W. McCoy completed the remaining four murals — a fitting memorial to perhaps the greatest American artist of the golden age of illustration.
Metropolitan Life lobby with murals by N.C. Wyeth
- The graph prepared by Art Market Research shows that since 1976, paintings by N.C. Wyeth have increased at a 13.4% annual rate of return.
- The market graph shows significant growth since 2010 and a sharp increase as recently as 2020.
- The record price for N.C. Wyeth at auction was set in 2018 when Portrait of a Farmer, a smaller painting from 1943, sold for nearly $6M. No N.C. Wyeth paintings on this monumental scale have appeared at auction.