June 2016 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Thoreau Meets Wyeth in New Exhibit

Men of Concord.JPGAs some faithful readers of this blog might recall, I'm a fan and a collector of Henry David Thoreau and his circle, and one of my favorite books is Men of Concord, a 1936 Houghton-Mifflin production that paired Thoreau's journal entries with color illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

Wyeth painted twelve oil panels (approximately 38" x 33") for the book, which was a long-delayed labor of love. An admirer of Thoreau, Wyeth initially pitched his idea to Houghton-Mifflin in 1918. But it wasn't until Thoreau bibliographer Francis H. Allen signed on to the project that it got underway. Allen selected the text, Wyeth provided the twelve color illustrations, and Wyeth's son Andrew supplied pen-and-ink sketches.

Now, for the first time in nearly eighty years, all twelve of Wyeth's panels, as well as charcoal drawings, watercolors, and sketches made for the book, are on exhibit at the Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. The exhibit, N. C. Wyeth's Men of Concord, which opened on April 15 and runs through September 18, traces the evolution of the book project and examines the artist's working process.

Wyeth's panels are, even to my untrained eye, stunning. They are bright and beautiful and life-like. As Allen wrote in the book's preface, "The reader will feel that through these pictures he himself has come almost into personal contact with Thoreau and with the men of Concord."

The panels have long since been scattered to the winds, said Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator of special collections at the Concord Free Public Library. Wyeth intended them to remain together in Concord and even offered them to the library at the discounted price of $5,000 for the set. When that didn't pan out, he sold them individually. A donor bought one for the library, and the library later had the opportunity to buy two more, but other collectors swallowed up the rest. Christine Podmaniczky, curator of the N. C. Wyeth Collections and Historic Properties at the Brandywine River Museum of Art and consulting curator for this exhibit, located the far-flung nine panels for this splendid reunion.

A related exhibit, From Thoreau's Seasons to Men of Concord: N. C. Wyeth Inspired, is on view at the Concord Free Public Library, also through September 18.  

Image: Men of Concord. Credit: Rebecca Rego Barry.