Friday, January 11, 2013

The Centennial of N.C. Wyeth's Kidnapped

Celebrating cultural highlights
of 1913...
Wyeth-blogging, essay 1 on
N.C. Wyeth's Illustrations 
for Kidnapped

Dustjacket cover of Kidnapped by Robert Louis
Stevenson, a Scribner Illustrated Classic published
in 1913 with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his classic adventure novel Kidnapped in 1886, so the text technically falls outside of my current 1913 focus.  Nevertheless, I’m hoping to take this occasion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a very special book, the 1913 Charles Scribner’s Sons “Juvenile Classics” edition of Kidnapped for which the publisher commissioned illustrations by Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth.

Wyeth was still young, just 30 years old, when his illustrated Kidnapped was published, but he already commanded a formidable reputation as one of the country’s most talented illustrators.  Scribner’s was a top national publisher and they were intentionally striving toward an unusually high standard for book illustration.  While still a student of the renowned illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911), Wyeth began selling pictures and taking commissions from Scribners, quickly establishing himself as the go-to artist for scenes of history and adventure.

Kidnapped was Wyeth’s follow-up to Treasure Island, a breakthrough masterpiece of adventure illustration.  A huge bestseller for Scribners, Treasure Island set a standard that even Wyeth knew would be hard to equal, much less surpass.  Scribners suggested doing Kidnapped next, and Wyeth weighed his options.  He was feeling ambitious.  “I want you to know,” he wrote the publisher, “that I have the greatest hopes, and unless I outclass Treasure Island I want you to cancel the entire scheme.”

Looking back on these highlights of a golden age of illustration, who really cares anymore if the illustrations for Kidnapped are better than Treasure Island?  Wyeth hurled himself into reimagining the adventure plots with an almost inhuman vigor and artistry, creating images that define and enlarge—even mythologize—the texts.  Considered as objects, these books are among the finest ever published because of the near perfect meshing of prose and illustration.  With the Scribners’ editions of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, the boys’ novel became art.

Title page of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson,
a Scribner Illustrated Classic published
in 1913 with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.

Reference Sources

N. C. Wyeth: A Biography by David Michaelis
N.C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations, and Murals by Douglas Allen and Douglas Allen, Jr.
The Brandywine Tradition by Henry C. Pitz
An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art
Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life by Richard Meryman
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

My low-resolution copies of the N.C. Wyeth book illustrations are via the beautiful high-resolution scans at The Golden Age, one of my favorite art blogs on the internet.

© 2013 Lee Price

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