Meeting Life: N.C. Wyeth and the MetLife Murals
Heather James Fine Art is excited to present a set of large-scale paintings created by N.C. Wyeth for the Met Life building in New York City. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to enjoy one of the last series of paintings by Wyeth, one almost exclusively not seen outside of the MetLife building.
Emerging at the end of the Gilded Age, N.C. Wyeth was one of the most important American artists and illustrators. His paintings and illustrations brought life to classic literature from Treasure Island to The Boy’s King Arthur and more. He is most remembered for his ability to capture crucial moments in narratives, fleshing out just a few words into a visual representation of deep drama and tension. Patriarch of the Wyeth artistic dynasty, which includes his son Andrew and grandson Jamie, his influence touched future illustrators and artists.
His legacy encompasses more than an astonishing ability to capture crucial moments in dynamic ways. Wyeth put that ability into paintings that shaped American imagination – of America itself and of wild possibilities. Because of his illustrating background, Wyeth was able to create narratives of America within his paintings. Wyeth’s powerful works gave life to many of the stories America told of itself. His early paintings captured life of the American West and some of his most beloved illustrations were for novels such as The Last of the Mohicans or short stories like “Rip Van Winkle”. Despite this success, Wyeth struggled with the commercialism of illustrations and advertisements, seeking his work to be accepted as fine art.
All of this led to one of his final series of paintings, the commission for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. MetLife asked that Wyeth create a series of paintings to “serve as a graphic and dramatic expression of the spirit of New England.” Many of the pieces relate to the journey and arrival of the Pilgrims from England and the Netherlands to what would be New England. Included in this exhibition are two of these Pilgrim paintings. But why this subject? On a surface level there is the request of MetLife for the New England spirit and the company’s history that intertwines with America. MetLife started during the American Civil War to insure soldiers and sailors; by 1930 they insured one of five people in the US and Canada. They even financed the construction of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.
For many in the United States, the founding of the nation starts with the story of the Pilgrims, and it is this story that shapes how the country views itself and the stories it tells and allows. One need only look at other founding stories such as Romulus and Remus for Rome and how they reflect on the civilization or nation and how they reflect on themselves. It is not just that we tell these stories but how we tell them and how we frame them. In the literal sense of framing, these works by Wyeth are quintessential depictions of these stories. We see the stoicism of the Pilgrims in the face of tremendous odds and their pursuit of religious freedom. The bright, bold colors Wyeth employs as well as his keen eye for capturing moments of dynamic tension has been key to what we imagine of this origin story.
But, this story is not the United States’ only origin story, and even the story of the Pilgrims is complex and contentious. Like the founding of Rome (there is both Romulus and Aeneas of Virgil’s Aeneid), there are many complicated narratives that compete and complement each other, histories that were discussed and debated since the beginning. Whenever we talk about this history, we must ask ourselves why do we tell these stories, what do they say about us, where did they come from, who is and isn’t included, and how do we tell it?
Although these paintings were some of the last pieces worked on by Wyeth, they were not his only commissioned murals. While Wyeth may have been one of the towering figures of illustration, he was preoccupied with being seen as a fine art artist. In this way, murals provided him this possibility. Think of the many murals made by some of the greatest artists in history since the Renaissance – Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Cassatt, Diego Rivera, Keith Haring. Often murals depict events in history (also called “history paintings”) which were considered some of the highest forms of art. As they progressed, these works often performed other functions, particularly showcasing or celebrating values important to the commissioner. It is for these reasons that murals were considered so favorably and for which Wyeth was eager to paint them.
Some of Wyeth’s other murals include “Peace, Commerce, Prosperity” (1923) for the First National Bank of Boston (now at the Peabody Essex Museum) and the St. Andrews School mural (1938). Beyond the ability to capture crucial, dynamic moments, what ties the MetLife, First National Bank of Boston, and St. Andrews School murals together is a particular sense of America and patriotism, one that is still felt today even as we grapple with what it means to be American. The St. Andrew’s School mural is even a literal founding moment. These more-or-less public works became part of the literal atmosphere for the people who saw them on nearly daily basis. MetLife’s murals were not just decorative lobby paintings but were in the building where its employees would see and interact with them, becoming a part of their lives. They occupied the employee lounge and escalator landings. Wyeth’s vision of America gives visual coherence to traditional narratives.
As mentioned, these murals and the MetLife series were deeply personal to Wyeth for several reasons: from his desire to be taken seriously as an artist to an opportunity to investigate his own upbringing in New England. Wyeth was born in Needham, Massachusetts. One of his ancestors even came to Massachusetts from England in 1645, not far removed in time from the founding of Plymouth Colony in 1620. This deep appreciation can be seen in the three pieces in the exhibition. In “The Coming of the Mayflower in 1620”, we see the ship in the turbulent waves amongst a vibrant sky. But, it is Wyeth’s clever use of the gulls in the foreground that do a lot of heavy lifting, giving us a sense of scale for the ship and waves while also hinting how close the Mayflower is to shore. “The Departure of the Mayflower for England in 1621” depicts a scene of hope amongst desperation. The colonists have barely survived a harsh winter and are watching the ship as it disappears over the horizon back to England. The distance between ship and colonists lets the viewer know how long they have watched the ship leave, contemplating their lives and losses, their lives now linked to this land. But it is perhaps “Puritan Cod Fishers” that strikes us the most. Less historical than the other two, the piece presents an everyday moment, yet it is filled with every narrative convention he could deploy as if it were a great history painting. N.C. Wyeth, along with his grandson, died in a train collision. His son, Andrew Wyeth, completed this painting from his father’s sketch. It is the only painting from the MetLife project that Andrew completed.