Apr 1, 2014

N.C. Wyeth: Keeping Gay Desire Hidden

During the first half of the twentieth century, kids who got adventure books as presents, or checked them out of the library, were sure to find beautiful illustrations by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), like this naked warrior in a biography of Charlemagne.

The American regionalist illustrated over 100 books, including The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, The Yearling -- just about everything that boys read for pleasure during that era, making him as famous as Norman Rockwell or J.C. Leyendecker.

He also drew hundreds of magazine covers, advertisements, patriotic images, and murals, as well as a repertoire of 1,000 paintings.


N.C. (Newell) Wyeth belonged to the Brandywine School, known for its dependence on bright, vivid colors, realism to the point of grotesqueness, and serious, ponderous themes.  He frequently offered beefcake images -- two or three pictures in nearly every book display the interplay of muscles on a bare torso or nude backside.  But with two odd quirks:

1. N.C.'s nude men are almost always obscured, their faces hidden or their bodies engulfed in shadow, as in the illustrations from The White Company (left) or The Mysterious Island (below). It's as if displaying the face and physique together would be too dangerous, give too much voice to secret desires.



2. They are almost always in conflict, wrestling, fighting, attacking, subduing or being subdued, as in this illustration from Drums. It's as if he feared what would happen if two men approached each other in respect, friendship, or love.

In real life, N.C. was nothing like his stolid, stable, respectable illustrations would suggest.  He was an aesthete, a gourmand and a bon vivant, who held court in his house in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and summer home in Maine, partying with all of the greats of the Jazz Age, including Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and gay novelist Hugh Walpole.  




There is no evidence that N.C. was gay, but lots of evidence that he worried about sexual identity. In those days people thought that gayness was an inversion, and he was "inverted," with a blustering machismo deliberately affected as a remedy to a "sissy" childhood, with refined, "feminine" tastes in literature, art, and music, and with many intense, passionate friendships with men. 

You mustn't paint the nude men directly -- they must always be obscured.  Or else who knows what feelings might be stirred up?

N.C.'s older brother Nat, who was gay, suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, was institutionalized off and on, and attempted suicide several times. 

Is that the end result of men loving men?  Better show them always in conflict.




By all accounts, N.C. and his wife provided a happy home for their five children, bright with art and music. Three -- Andrew, Henriette, and Carolyn -- became well-respected artists in their own right. Nathaniel became an inventor.

But N.C. constantly struggled with his demons. Self-recrimination because he was "merely" an illustrator instead of a great painter.  And something else...a nagging doubt.  

His oldest son Nathaniel, called "Nat" after his uncle, was also gay.

From father to son...

 N.C. sublimated through eating heavily, finally tipping the scale at over 300 pounds.  And  through frequent extramarital romances, most notably a long-term affair with his daughter-in-law Caroline, Nat's wife.  There were rumors that her fifth child -- named Newell, after his grandfather -- was actually his "love child."  



On October 19, 1945, a few days before his 63rd birthday, N.C. Wyeth and 4-year old Newell were killed when their car stalled on some railroad tracks.

He left just one illustration of a semi-nude man who is not obscured or in conflict.  Chasing a woman.

N.C.'s son, Andrew Wyeth, was more nonchalant about gay identity, and his grandson Jamie, also an artist, is a gay ally.

See also: N.C., Andrew, and Jamie: 3 Generations of Gay Art.