N.C. Wyeth: A Biographyby David Michaelis, N. C. Wyeth
An American painting dynasty is portrayed in this biography of N.C. Wyeth. His name summons up our earliest images of the beloved books we read as children. His illustrations for Scribner's Illustrated Classics are etched into the collective memory of generations of readers. He was hailed as the greatest American illustrator of his day. For 43 years, starting/i>… See more details below
An American painting dynasty is portrayed in this biography of N.C. Wyeth. His name summons up our earliest images of the beloved books we read as children. His illustrations for Scribner's Illustrated Classics are etched into the collective memory of generations of readers. He was hailed as the greatest American illustrator of his day. For 43 years, starting in 1902, he painted landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and murals as well as illustrations for a long shelf of world literature. Yet he proclaimed 'the uselessness of clinging to illustration and hoping to make it a great art.' He judged himself a failure, believing that illustration was of no importance.
David Michaelis's biography of N.C. Wyeth tells the story of his family through four generations. It is a family saga that begins and ends with the accidental deaths of small boys, a gothic tale that shows how N.C., while learning to live a safe and familiar domestic life, endangered himself and his children by concealing part of the family legacy -- depression, suicide, incest. He found in fatherhood the foremost expression of his character -- trying to create in the Wyeth homestead his dream of childhood at its most enchanting. He held his children enthralled through their adult lives. He persuaded his inventor son, Nat, to live at home, shepherded his daughter Ann's career as a composer, and taught his three other children -- Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew (N.C. was Andrew's only teacher) -- to paint.
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In August 1866 a grave was dug in the village cemetery for the body of an infant boy. His name was Rudolph Zirngiebel. He would have been N. C. Wyeth's uncle. Born November 28, 1865, Rudolph had lived eight months, twenty-eight days.
When N. C. Wyeth's mother's family, Swiss immigrants, buried their infant son in Needham's wooded cemetery, the Zirngiebels also buried the true cause of Rudolph's death, which was withheld from town records for four months and then officially misrepresented. No one outside the family was ever to know the truth, that Rudolph had fallen into the Charles River and drowned.
Rudolph's sister--N. C. Wyeth's mother--omitted any direct mention of her third brother from the intimate, sometimes hourly record of her thoughts, which she left to posterity in the form of thousands of letters written to her sons. The true facts of Rudolph's death never came to light during her lifetime, and the aftereffects of her concealment would supervene at the time of N. C. Wyeth's birth in 1882 and, ultimately, all through his life. The story that ends with the death of a child begins with the death of a child.
Needham was an upriver village. Bostonians in 1866 knew it as "some sleepy country town in Norfolk County." But to N. C. Wyeth's Swiss grandparents, a hilly farming community twelve miles up the Charles River offered bright prospects. Needham looked like an ideal place for Jean Denys Zirngiebel to grow and sell flowers.
Zirngiebel had come to America in search of soil. Born in the French-speaking Swiss canton of Neuchatel, he had graduated with highest honors from the University of Neuchatel in 1848. He served a seven-year apprenticeship in French and Swiss botanic gardens, then cultivated grapes on his own land in the canton of Bern. In 1852 he married Henriette Zeller, the daughter of a well-to-do German-Swiss family in Thun. Henriette gave birth to their first child, Denys Jr., in 1854.
A year later, at the age of twenty-six, Zirngiebel lost his land to the Swiss Federal Railways. He gave up hope of making his start in Switzerland, left behind his wife and infant son, and sailed for America.
Zirngiebel arrived in New Orleans. At a Louisiana plantation, he presented letters of introduction testifying to his intelligence. For a few months he tended plantation gardens and learned some English. Then, with new letters of recommendation, he moved north.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the botanist Asa Gray hired Zirngiebel as a gardener at Harvard University's Botanic Garden, the only institution of its kind in the United States. Zirngiebel most likely moved into the gardener's quarters in Gray's stately house on Raymond Street. Then, without knowing what an ordeal he was about to put his family through, or how long-lasting its consequences, Zirngiebel sent for his wife and two-year-old son.
Henriette Zeller Zirngiebel's family had lived in Bern since the seventeenth century. Situated by Lake Thun, their village was known to travelers as the gateway to the Bernese Oberland. Thun was a typical Swiss-German community, steeped in tradition. Women rarely traveled more than a few miles from home. To a Bernese woman in the middle of the nineteenth century, the idea of home meant uninterrupted attachment to an extended family living an orderly life in a well-run house centered on the village. Women like Henriette's aunt Rosetti, who married an Englishman and moved to England, were "never heard from." Home was the place you left when you died.
All that changed on May 10, 1856. Henriette set sail from Le Havre on the Hamilton. She was twenty-five years old and stood five feet, one and three quarters inches. Her hair was black, her eyes brown, her color "healthy." That, too, changed. No sooner was she reunited with her husband in America than time and distance caught up with her. The shock of leaving Thun altered Henriette Zeller Zirngiebel forever.
Arriving in Massachusetts, she felt as if she were no longer herself. America seemed strange, artificial, accelerated. She experienced a sharp sense of dislocation. In Thun, time was not much noticed, except as a melodious repetition of church bells. Americans rushed ahead, marked time by punching a clock, that "key-machine of the modern industrial age." In a few years Henry Ford would speak for the whole country when he declaimed, "We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present."
Henriette ached for home. The Needham Chronicle would later remark on her quiet ways, her "retiring disposition." The truth was, she remained tongue-tied by the past. Afraid to lose Switzerland, Henriette spoke only Swiss-German or French. "The mind in Nostalgia has attention only for a return to the Fatherland," stated the then-current medical dissertation on the "Swiss malady," homesickness. A Swiss physician, Johannes Hofer, who coined the term nostalgia from the Greek nostos (a return) and algos (pain), had observed that the illness was aggravated by "frequent contemplations of the Fatherland, and from an image of it," and that by far the greatest number of those afflicted were natives of Bern, Henriette's home canton. Images of Thun haunted her: the black lake, the distant, snow-white peaks, the timeless town--the same black-and-white images N. C. Wyeth would later hang beside his studio door.
Denys Zirngiebel, meanwhile, had grown to like America. He got on well in the New England of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Holmes. He made new friends easily. One of them was Andrew Newell Wyeth, the baggage master of the Fitchburg Railroad.
The Wyeths had been landowners in Cambridge for over two hundred years. Their fields and farms dominate the city maps of 1776, 1830, and 1854. Nicholas, a mason, the first Wyeth to come from England, bought a house in Cambridge on May 20, 1645. In the third generation, Jonas Wyeth destroyed tea as an "Indian" at the Boston Tea Party; Noah and four other Wyeths took up arms against His Majesty's troops on April 19, 1775; Ebenezer fought the redcoats at Bunker Hill. Ebenezer's son, John, worked his way up from printer's apprentice to become owner of the Harrisburg Advertiser; a booster of George Washington, John Wyeth was rewarded with the postmastership of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The fifth-generation Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth patented ice-harvesting tools for the export of American ice, then went west on the Oregon Trail.
By 1856, the year of Denys Zirngiebel's arrival in Cambridge, families of Wyeths still lived side by side in clapboard farmhouses on Brattle Street. Nathaniel, the resourceful inventor and soon to be famous pioneer, inhabited Wyeth Lane. The Wyeth Ice House stood by Fresh Pond. On Garden Street, N. C. Wyeth's great-grandfather Job Wyeth occupied the first Wyeth homestead. The Andrew Newell Wyeths had just moved from Garden Street to Raymond, where the Zirngiebels had been living for a year.
Raymond Street climbed the crest of Avon Hill, crossing paths with the Fitchburg Railroad on the downslope. Joined as neighbors, the Zirngiebels and the Wyeths had sons a year apart. Andrew Newell Wyeth, Jr., known as Newell, and Denys Zirngiebel, Jr., played together, sledding in winter and skating on Fresh Pond. The Zirngiebels' connection to the Wyeths was a first step in their assimilation into American life.
Henriette, however, could not re-create herself on Raymond Street. Her center of gravity was fixed in Switzerland. Thinking always of what she had lost, Henriette had another child.
On Christmas Day, 1858, a girl was born on Raymond Street. The Zirngiebels named her Henriette. Hoping to Americanize the child, her father called her Hattie, as he himself was now called Dennis. But her mother made a point of pronouncing the name on-ri-ETTE, "as that is the French and German version of it." In any case, the baby lifted Henriette's spirits and was a turning point in her melancholy life.
Meanwhile, at the Botanic Garden, Denys Zirngiebel had not advanced. He scarcely seems to have been noticed. In a community where practically everyone was writing about everyone else in diaries, letters, scientific papers, and sermons, Zirngiebel is nowhere to be found. His name does not appear among those of the six young men Asa Gray recruited to succeed himself as director of the Botanic Garden. Scant evidence of a gardener known as Zirngerbeit is all that survives among the Botanic Garden records.
It was the same with Longfellow. In N. C. Wyeth's version of his mother's early life in Cambridge, Denys Zirngiebel and the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were "old cronies." The poet's merry, precocious daughters, Edith and Allegra, had been friends with the Zirngiebels "for years." Hattie, N. C. Wyeth's mother, played among Brattle Street's "garden of girls," the children of The Children's Hour. Longfellow dandled Hattie on his knee "many, many times."
A more accurate portrait can be found in Longfellow's archives. The fact was, Longfellow had befriended numerous Swiss immigrants; Switzerland was close to his heart. In 1836 the poet had met his second wife, Fanny Appleton, while on holiday in, of all places, Thun, Henriette Zirngiebel's longed-for village. But if the Longfellows knew the Zirngiebels in Cambridge, the acquaintance was casual. In the detailed record of the Longfellows' life at 105 Brattle Street, Denys and Henriette Zirngiebel make no appearance.
In later years, N. C. Wyeth would also say that his grandfather had been the director of Harvard's Botanic Garden. In fact, when it came time to name Asa Gray's successor, the next director of the impecunious garden was chosen not for merit but for money. The job went to a rich student of botany named Charles Sprague Sargent. Yet to the end of his life, Wyeth would proudly claim the directorship for his grandfather, insisting that Denys Zirngiebel had been a "prominent Swiss Horticulturist," who had come "to this country with Louis Agassiz and worked with him for years at Harvard."
According to Zirngiebel family papers, Denys had landed in Cambridge on his own initiative, not, as N. C. Wyeth would later tell it, at his former professor Louis Agassiz' personal suggestion. Zirngiebel, it is true, had first fallen under Agassiz' spell as a seventeen-year-old at the University of Neuchatel. Thorough and careful as a student, Zirngiebel idolized the brash, daring professor who had awed the world by announcing his discovery that glaciers had once covered Europe and North America. As it happened, however, student and professor crossed paths for a matter of months only; Zirngiebel barely glimpsed the tail end of Agassiz' cometlike career at Neuchatel. In 1846, when Agassiz departed for the United States, Zirngiebel, like many others, may have wanted to follow. But he had first to graduate.
By the time Zirngiebel caught up to his idol, Agassiz had been enchanting Cambridge for ten years. In America, the famed Swiss naturalist had become a household god. N. C. Wyeth's mother and uncles grew up calling him "our great hero of nature." Denys Zirngiebel's association with the great man would become an article of family creed, passed on to the next four generations. For N. C. Wyeth, the family's Agassiz connection persisted to 1919: while writing an article for Scribner's Magazine, Wyeth related the secret of Agassiz' teaching as if it were a family heirloom handed down by his grandfather. In N.C.'s studio in the 1920s, Agassiz' observation of the form and substance of an object for its own sake became gospel in the training of subsequent generations of Wyeth painters. But as was often the case when the Wyeths idealized a showman and merged their fate with his, historical truth proved less glorious than family legend.
Harvard has no record of Denys Zirngiebel assisting Agassiz. N. C. Wyeth's grandfather was an independent seedsman, more interested in growing and selling familiar flowers than in classifying new strains of North American flora for scientific purposes. In his own field, in his own day, Denys Zirngiebel identified himself as a "florist."
By 1864 he had decided to make the jump from botanic gardening to what was then called floriculture. Looking for a promising piece of land, Zirngiebel learned of property farther up the Charles River, in an old wayside town called Needham.
Set upon the highest hills of eastern Massachusetts, Needham was tableland. Elevated 180 feet above sea level--higher than the top of Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown--the town boasted hills that reached 300 feet. In June the Needham air blew light and dry, unusually pure. The spruces massed along the Charles River stood thick as an Alpine fir forest.
Needham worked like Switzerland as well. Its all-powerful town meeting echoed the sovereignty of the village commune, the Gemeinde. The townspeople, a homogenous population of farmers and woodcutters, took a Swiss view of themselves. Industrious, thrifty, they exercised self-restraint, preferring outsiders to see them as "staid and sober," above all as "home-loving people." They marketed dairy products, bottled Needham spring water, and never tired of promoting it, as if it were an elixir. But Needham in 1864 was struggling. Ribboned by the Charles, the town had been choked by it. Too shallow for seafaring, too sluggish for rapid industrialization, the river that flowed through Needham was a canoe stream. After a pair of eighteenth-century sawmills had petered out, every attempt to make the town a manufacturing center had failed.
The powerless Charles provided Needham but one local asset. Two miles below the village, a single, narrow belt of rich bottomland ran between the riverbank and a dirt road called South Street. The property Zirngiebel had come to see measured six and three-quarters acres along South Street. The house was a clapboard dwelling built before the Revolutionary War. Zirngiebel began renting in 1864.
The terrain was suited to growing. Across South Street, a thickly wooded knoll rose in a natural windscreen. Behind the house, an open meadow sloped 350 feet down to the river, angled toward the morning sun. Zirngiebel built three long greenhouses parallel to the road--forty thousand feet of "clayish" soil under clean, sparkling glass. Along South Street, he planted fortlike ramparts of arborvitae to redouble his protection from north winds. For irrigation, a windmill and water tower drew fresh water from the river.
By now the Zirngiebels had a third child, Augustus, known as Gig, born in Cambridge in 1861. In the spring of 1865, Henriette was pregnant a fourth time. The farmhouse was big enough for the expanding family, but the oldest son, Denys Jr., age eleven, had balked at the change; he was homesick for Cambridge. He missed Raymond Street and the Wyeths. A letter from twelve-year-old Newell Wyeth had arrived during the Zirngiebels' first winter in Needham. Denys Jr. had taken it, he told Newell, "as a signe as you hafe not forget your old friend.
"Every time I habe chance to skate or slide I wish to have you with me," Denys Jr. went on. "I will never forget all them nice times with you in Cambridge."
Denys Jr. next wrote to Newell after Christmas 1865. He cataloged his presents: "a paint box and a drum half as big as yours and a nice winter coat [and] a box of UNITED STATS PUZZLE." His brother Gig had received a box of blocks and an illustrated book, The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. His sister had been given her heart's desire: "Hattie has a big Doll."
Hattie Zirngiebel longed for a sister. Nothing mattered so much as the connection she wanted with "a womankind of my own flesh and blood." Later, she remembered feeling crushed when the fourth baby appeared. "A girl would have pleased me," she wrote. But on November 28, 1865, in the birthing room at 286 South Street, a boy was born.
Denys Jr. broke the news to Newell Wyeth in Cambridge. "We have got a baby named Rudolf."
Solomon Flagg was a one-man town hall. In addition to duties as schoolmaster, chorister, town treasurer, assessor, representative to the general court, and school committeeman, he was town clerk. Flagg recorded deaths. When a six-year-old Needham boy, Silas Williams, died of dysentery on August 23, 1866, Flagg promptly recorded the facts in his official register. He did the same for a woman named Sally Sylvester, who died of typhoid fever that day. Dysentery and typhus were routine. So were infant deaths. Of the fifty-six people who died in Needham in 1866, the largest number--eleven--were babies under the age of twelve months. On August 25, however, when the Zirngiebels' infant son, Rudolph, drowned in the river below the family homestead on South Street, Flagg made no record.
Needham's undertaker, George G. Eaton, prepared the body for burial. Rudolph was the first Zirngiebel to die in the new country. His small coffin, embossed with an engraved, oval-shaped plaque, was taken to the new family plot in Needham's rural cemetery. A Mr. Moody composed an elegy:
Two more little eyes
Are closed to ope no more;
Two more little feet
Have reached the shining shore.
Two more little ears
Are deaf to sounds of mirth;
Two more little lips
Will lisp no more on earth.
Two more little hands
Close folded on the breast;
One more little form
Is gently laid to rest.
The autumn of 1866 passed without final documentation on Rudolph's death. In December, Solomon Flagg abruptly opened Register No. 4 and turned to page 33. Burying the matter among the December dead, he entered the official cause of "Rodolf" Zirngiebel's death: "Dropsy in the brain."
Known as water on the brain, dropsy has a history as a concealing disease. It often appeared in nineteenth-century coroners' reports to divert the attention of authorities from more serious matters. By the end of 1866, after some fifty thousand Americans had died of cholera believed to have spread from Europe on arriving passenger ships, the diagnosis of dropsy began to appear on the docks in New York. In order to avoid quarantining sailors and impatient first-class passengers at the pier, a ship's medical report might list dropsy as the cause of any unnatural deaths in steerage.
If Solomon Flagg had wanted to keep a strange or accidental death quiet, if he took it as his duty to protect the temperate, home-loving village of Needham from scandal, he could have chosen no better story to give out than "dropsy in the brain."
The Zirngiebels had no more children. It is not clear what immediate effect the death of her baby brother had on Hattie's growing up. A photograph taken a year after Rudolph's death shows nine-year-old Hattie with her finger in a book. Her eyes, averted, are shaded with black semicircles. She holds her mouth in a tight, mournful grimace.
Hattie was often depressed, "nervous," agitated for no discernible reason, and subject to what she called outbursts. "Sickness," Hattie wrote in later life, "has a terror for me." She felt crushed by the smallest change in her routine. When she looked back on herself in childhood, she seemed "so carefree. That was my nature, but a rub the wrong way generally affected me deeper than others, as I have since many times discovered."
As an adult, Hattie wrote regularly to family members. Her unpunctuated prose spiraled through time, associations falling one upon another as she visited and revisited old names and faces. She spoke often and critically of her two living brothers, Denys and Gig, but never in all her letters did she mention the third brother by name. One time, pitying herself for having had three brothers and no sisters, she started to reveal herself. But as for the true cause of Rudolph's death, she never came straight out with that either.
At twenty, unmarried, she was sure that the best part of her life was already behind her. Photographs taken in Boston portray a plump young woman with almond-shaped eyes made pouchy by sleeplessness. Hattie has her mother's sorrowful gaze and wavy dark hair and the kind of smile that shows pain.
She had an aptitude for languages. French and German had been the tongues of her upbringing. She thought she would become a teacher of French. "I was so intent on teaching either languages or something useful, I worked for that," she later wrote. A good education, she believed, would improve her prospects. But with limited opportunities and a profound sense of disappointment, she put aside her teaching aspirations in the fall of 1881. At the age of twenty-two, she was engaged to her old Raymond Street neighbor Newell Wyeth.
Andrew Newell Wyeth, Jr., was slightly shorter than Hattie. He had wide-set, watery blue eyes, a soft face with flat cheeks, and two ready expressions for the camera: pinched discomfort or kindly detachment. He revealed as little of himself as possible. He labored over letters, wrote ponderously, and was wry, moralizing--a born minister, his parents thought. Newell's father, Andrew Newell Wyeth, Sr., had also been expected to join the clergy. But in the 1830s, when the first American railroads had begun to carry passengers behind steam locomotives, Newell's father had left school to join the Fitchburg "road." He married Amelia H. Stimson in 1843 and became a stationmaster and inspector of cattle trains.
Newell was the only son. He served in a peaceful Cambridge militia and remained close to his three sisters, Annie, Susan, and Harriet. He had no interest in fulfilling his parents' hopes for the ministry. Newell wanted to be a farmer. On Raymond Street, he kept cows and chickens, taking orders for fresh eggs, milk, and poultry at the back door. But when he turned twenty-two, Newell gave up poultry and followed his father across the river to Charlestown. He established himself in business--A. N. WYETH, JR., HAY, GRAIN, & STRAW--alongside his father's domain in the Fitchburg freight yard. In sheds on Union Street, Newell employed nine men and made a comfortable living. In 1881, when his father retired from the freight yard at Prison Point, Newell took over as inspector of hay.
In Needham, meanwhile, the newly established Zirngiebel greenhouses had prospered. Denys Zirngiebel specialized in pansies, developing a hardy, brilliantly colored bloom that spread four inches across, "as large as the top of a common tumbler." Zirngiebel's pansies were not only well bred--in 1888 he won the first silver medal bestowed by the Boston Horticultural Society--but they were cheap, affordable to a wide public. He called them "a plant for the million[s]." With customers in every state and territory of the Union, Zirngiebel earned a national reputation as the "Pansy King." Needham claimed him as one of its most prominent citizens.
No matter what laurels fell to Denys, Henriette refused to regenerate herself in the new land. In every photograph taken of "Grandmama Z," she appears, increasingly, to wither. A small, jaded figure, draped in black skirts, with a large head and pale, thin lips, she looks as if she really had left parts of herself somewhere else. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would remember her as "a permanently sad woman."
* * *
On December 21, 1881, Newell Wyeth and Hattie Zirngiebel exchanged vows, joining the Old World with the New. As with many events that lay ahead, they divided the wedding. The marriage ceremony took place in the Zirngiebels' front parlor on South Street. Two weeks later they held the wedding reception at the Wyeth hay barns at 26 Union Street in Charlestown. Around the corner, on Austin Street, the couple moved into a two-story red-brick house, No. 30. For Newell, whose turned-out hips gave him a flat-footed duck walk, it would take less than a minute to amble to work. For Hattie, tucked away in Charlestown, marriage would mean "doing what was expected and right for me to do." She added, with regret, "I know it made a different woman in me."
A crisis developed during the couple's first two months in Charlestown. Hattie fell ill. She would later remember it as "homesickness at the thought of leaving my mother." She would identify the trouble as "a feeling which I no doubt inherited and have never yet been able to overcome." Whatever it was, she could bear the separation from her family no longer. She needed to go home--home to Needham. She was convinced that, with the loss of her old home, she had lost everything.
In the shadow of Bunker Hill, Hattie had tried to join Newell in his patriotism. But the Spirit of '76 would never mean as much to her as the "home-spirit." Newell, meanwhile, could no more turn Hattie into a practical-thinking Wyeth than she could get him to "feel" as a Zirngiebel. They had opposite temperaments: he, restrained, methodical, self-effacing, present minded; she, expressive, willful, demanding, drawn to the past. Hattie was continuously sick; Newell never took a sick day. On the occasion Newell Wyeth ran a fever, he pulled on his street suit, wound his watch, went to work. Hattie could try playing one Yankee trait against another, coaxing Newell home from Prison Point with the suggestion that "it will be cheaper in the end to keep quiet." It never worked.
By February 1882, Hattie was pregnant with their first child. The baby was due in October. All the more reason to go home to Needham.
For Newell the timing was bad. With his father's retirement the previous year, Newell's duties at the railroad hay depot had doubled. He needed to spend more time in Charlestown, not less. A move to Needham would require thirty miles of train travel each day. But Newell Wyeth prided himself on being a sensible man, and he could see that there would be no peace until Hattie was returned home. He was beginning to learn "how hard it is to make her look at things any differently than she wants to."
They would remain in Charlestown through May, then move out to Needham for the summer months. Meantime, the railroad made it possible for Newell to indulge Hattie's homesickness. The trip took thirty-nine minutes each way, not counting walking time. Newell would buy commutation tickets and become something new in the language: a "commuter."
Hattie admitted, "He sacrificed much time and hardship to travel the distance to have me feel contented." Newell's "sacrifice" set a pattern that would last well beyond a single summer. For all his common sense, Newell would again and again be forced to give way to the more powerful force of Hattie's irrational feelings. "She had her way pretty much the whole of her married life," N.C.'s brother Nat said later. "She liked to be babied, although she would not admit it."
Newell babied her with a house. He planned to build Hattie a "little home to live in summers."
Meet the Author
David Michaelis is the author of three books. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and their two children.
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