This is a dark and defensive descant to a more substantial and necessary conversation about whiteness in America. As the country grows more diverse and more authentically aware of how deeply racism is embedded in its history, no one can take whiteness for granted. Being white isn’t the baseline or default position for being American, but merely one identity among many others. Throughout this country, from online racist communities to academia to everyday discourse on television and around the dinner table, people are groping for an understanding of what it means to be white, including what it used to mean historically and what it could mean in a better, more enlightened America.
“N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives,” an exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art outside Philadelphia, explores some of these questions. N.C. Wyeth was the patriarch of the Wyeth artistic dynasty, which includes his son Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009, and his grandson Jamie Wyeth, who remains one of this country’s most admired representational painters. Newell Convers Wyeth was one of the great painters of whiteness, an artist who illustrated books that fired the imagination and formed the character of generations of readers (especially white boys) and a painter who worked contentedly and productively in communities that took easy, unapologetic pride in their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage. Born in 1882, he was, like many white men of his generation, interested in and sympathetic to eugenics, the supposed science of race that infected American culture, politics and jurisprudence, and fueled worldwide abominations including colonialism, genocide and the atrocities of Adolf Hitler.
The works on view don’t look explicitly racist and they don’t traffic in caricatures of race. Instead, they present a mostly uncritical view of the world as Wyeth saw it, a world of upstanding men and women who were industrious, courageous and independent, and who shared a common canon of stories, myths and imagery dating to America’s Colonial past and European roots. Whiteness, in this sense, is defined by absence, the missing faces of people of color, with the exception of Native Americans, who are seen as allegorical types, melancholy embodiments of a prelapsarian America. Wyeth did make images of African Americans in his role as an illustrator for commercial advertisements, including renderings of Aunt Jemima, a minstrel-show figure used to market a pancake mix since 1889, but those aren’t included in the exhibition.
There’s no contradiction in the absence of black faces and the presence of Native American ones. Racially homogenous communities often don’t feel themselves to be racist, because otherness is mostly invisible and encounters with people of different backgrounds infrequent. The community proceeds untroubled by matters of diversity and its members may even condescend to racists elsewhere who live in more heterogenous surroundings. But racial homogeneity is rarely an accident and often achieved at a terrible cost. The romanticizing of Native Americans at the end of the 19th century was a direct result of decades of war, displacement and genocide, to the point that they came to seem safely remote from American life, a fading echo of a bygone past. They could exist in Wyeth’s paintings because they no longer existed in his reality.
But whiteness wasn’t just the absence of people of color. White people — meaning, people of Northern European extraction — were felt to embody a set of virtues and character traits, which are lovingly detailed in Wyeth’s imaginative landscape. These are most salient in the paintings that he made as book illustrations. The 1919 endpaper illustration Wyeth created for an edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” shows three men in a canoe, two of them Native Americans sitting with paddles and the other a white man with a rifle standing between them. His face is determined, his stance wary but erect, he is in command while they work. He is “upstanding,” which is both a physical posture and metaphor for moral character.
“[Wyeth] was codifying those views — which were held by millions and millions of Americans — in his imagery,” says Christine Podmaniczky, curator of the N.C. Wyeth Collections at Brandywine and co-curator of this exhibition. She also notes that Wyeth was instrumental in launching the career of Horace Pippin, a major African American artist who lived in nearby West Chester, Pa.
It is, of course, a reckless thing to do, to stand up in a canoe, which is an unstable conveyance. But that, too, connects to a set of ideas about what were felt to be white virtues. Among the books that Wyeth admired was Madison Grant’s influential treatise on eugenics, “The Passing of the Great Race,” published three years before Wyeth made his “The Last of the Mohicans” illustrations. Grant’s book was a call for racial separation, racial purity and racial domination, and he wasn’t just interested in “white people,” but white people from Northern Europe, whom he dubbed “the Nordics.” The Nordics, he argued, were “a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats.” The man standing in the canoe stands in for all the virtues associated with adventure, exploration and battle.
I grew up with Wyeth’s book illustrations, and I remember devouring them at my grandparents’ house, losing myself in their tales of adventure and loving every minute of them. My mental pictures of the characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” are all derived from Wyeth’s masterful images, and this exhibition includes several of them. Among them is his painting of young Jim Hawkins leaving his humble English home. The boy, a plucky, decent and modest fellow, is seen in the foreground in shadow, while behind him his mother weeps in a dazzling blaze of sun. The painting, with its games of light and shadow and its direct and visceral evocation of an emotionally searing moment, is a virtuoso showstopper. Wyeth had absorbed centuries of painting technique, and when he mustered it, the results were stunning.
But what of the boy, and his whiteness? He is fair-skinned and handsome, and he is a mostly admirable figure in Stevenson’s beloved novel. Wyeth found the good in him, too, and created an enduring image of a boy about to set forth in the world, with a curious spirit and thirst for adventure. Are those not admirable qualities?
In the world Wyeth and Grant lived in, they were indeed admirable qualities, but they were also directly connected to an ingrained sense of privilege, to the right of white people to rule and to a basic sense that American democracy could only function if it was run by those whom Grant called our natural-born “rulers, organizers, and aristocrats.” Can we today separate a set of virtues — pluck, resourcefulness and modesty — from that darker sense of privilege and superiority? Is it possible to conceive of whiteness without lapsing into white supremacy?
The problem, of course, begins with the association of any set of virtues along racial lines. And many of the virtues embodied in Wyeth’s paintings — courage, independence, determination — are merely instrumental virtues, meaning they are useful for the accomplishment of some end, but not fundamental values, like kindness, justice and respect for others. A courageous scoundrel is far worse than a pusillanimous one.
And then there is the inevitable slippage from admiring a virtue as embodied in an individual, or represented in fiction or art, and attributing that virtue to larger social or national groups. As soon as one starts doing that, history is distorted, and the capacity for self-criticism stunted. Among the most troubling paintings on view is a 1931 rendering on canvas made for a large mural project for a bank in Wilmington, Del., a painting called “Apotheosis of the Family.” Seen in the center of the long, horizontal painting, the family is white, and Nordic, and they inhabit a land of freedom, hard work and abundance. To the right, ships under full sail are surging across the waves to a sunny shore.
Nature itself, and perhaps the gods, too, are willing accomplices in the making of Wyeth’s America. The boats are blown ashore with the grace of God, and among the family members (the father upright and tall, the mother with a baby at her breast) is a boy who looks like an adolescent Cupid, with a nimbus of golden hair, shooting an arrow at nothing in particular, or rather, at the world itself, compelling all creation to love him magically.
Wyeth was a masterful painter, and he spent much of his life trying to come to terms with an art world that looked down on illustration, and increasingly celebrated modernist currents over traditional representation. He dabbled in impressionism and in the bright colors of folksy primitivism, and he was clearly aware of regional and maverick modernist currents in America, including the work of Charles Burchfield and Rockwell Kent. But he was a romantic at heart and sought to depict a recognizable and enchanted version of the world he saw around him. That world was white, and Wyeth painted it as it saw itself.
In this entire exhibition, only one work even hints at the shadow of a doubt. In 1924, he painted a still life called “The Dusty Bottle,” which shows just that: a bottle covered in a fine coat of dust, which has been wiped off in a few places. It is a bravura performance, and perhaps it also speaks to just a faint awareness that there is otherness in the world. The paradox and brilliance of this painting is that the dust on the bottle would not read as dust if it hadn’t been wiped off in places, nor would the bottle appear to be made of glass if the dust was homogenously present over all its surface. Neither of these painted surfaces could exist without the other.
Wyeth must have stared at that bottle for a very long time, and it is as closely observed as any bucking bronco in his Wild West paintings, any nautical detail in his seafaring images, any nuance of weaponry in his paintings of soldiers, knights and Civil War figures. Perhaps he was the one who rubbed off the dust so that the glass could reflect light more brilliantly, and perhaps at that moment he saw his own face reflected in the glass. If so, I’m glad he didn’t paint it there, slightly distorted on the surface of the bottle, one last stroke of genius in the work, because then this painting, like almost all the others, would have a white man at the center of its drama.
“N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” is on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., through Sept. 15. For more information, visit www.brandywine.org/museum.