N.C. Wyeth’s ‘Deerslayer’ Illustration Sells for $1.3 Million
When the original art for a famous book illustration comes up for auction, I’m always curious. Where has it been? Why is it now being sold? Will a museum or benefactor buy it, so that the public will be able to enjoy it? Or will it just disappear into a private home?
Often, book illustrations are as important as the story itself, enjoyed by millions of young readers. But where are the originals? Some have been kept in the artists’ estates. Some remain in publishers’ archives. Others were simply sold along the way. An original may surface many generations later, when heirs start to sell artifacts. That is why I was fascinated to see a 1925 illustration for “The Deerslayer” by N. C. Wyeth sell for $1,325,000 in May. It’s a gorgeous oil painting, vibrantly colored with sunlight streaming through an opening in a deep forest. I know it well from my own copy of the book.
This original 1925 artwork by N.C. Wyeth, painted for an internal illustration of “The Deerslayer,” sold at Bonhams for $1,325,000 on May 20, 2015.
Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth (1882-1945) is, of course, a highly acclaimed artist. He created more than 3,000 paintings and illustrated more than 100 books, including 25 classics published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. He was the patriarch of three generations of immense talent, all of whom are famous in their own rights. So the selling price isn’t what caught my attention. It is the history of the painting itself, which also holds this signature and inscription, “N.C. Wyeth / To Peter / from Grandpa – 1944.”
James Fenimore Cooper wrote “The Deerslayer” in 1841. It was the last of his popular Leatherstocking Tales to be written, but the first chronologically in the five-book series (covering historical events on the American frontier from 1740 to 1804). Scribner’s reprinted “The Deerslayer” in 1925 and commissioned Wyeth to paint the full-page illustrations.
Wyeth was supremely gifted but very troubled and suffered from severe depression, like many in his family. He died tragically in 1945 when the car he was driving stalled on railroad tracks and was hit by a freight train. Also killed was his 3-year-old grandson, who was riding with him. Rumors abounded. Some said he was having an affair with his daughter-in-law (the mother of the child in his car). Some said he committed suicide. “The Deerslayer” painting had been given to an older grandchild only one year before.
N. C. Wyeth illustrated 25 Scribner Classics from 1911 to 1939.
The painting was only exhibited twice, which is more than most illustrative art. But it was displayed in two unlikely locales and probably not seen by many. In 1951, it was shown from April to May in Lubbock, Texas, at the West Texas Museum. In 1981, it was shown in September and October in Roswell, N.M.,at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Now it is in private hands.
After each Scribner classic was finished, Wyeth usually sold the original art through Scribner’s publishing house for around $500 each ($7,000 in today’s dollars). Wyeth felt that illustrative art (for which he received very hefty commissions and, later, royalties) was a commercialization of his real talent for portraits and landscapes. Although highly lucrative, it stifled his inspiration and was not as worthy as easel art. So, he let many of the Scribner originals go for a pittance. Wyeth’s 1920 cover art for “Robinson Crusoe” was bought that way in 1923. The astute buyer and his heirs hung on to the painting. It sold at Freeman’s for $353,000 on June 7 of this year.
This 1920 N.C. Wyeth illustration for “Robinson Crusoe” sold for $353,000 on June 7, 2015.
Prior to Freeman’s auction, I was lucky enough to view the Crusoe painting in person at a cocktail party in Philadelphia. As a bibliophile, I was thrilled to see the original art for one of my favorite book illustrations. Quite contrary to stifling inspiration, illustrative art allowed Wyeth to showcase his true creative genius. Other illustrators usually depict iconic scenes that the author has already described in detail. Instead, Wyeth chose more undefined parts of the narration. As a result, his expressive and imaginative interpretations illuminated every story. It is what he is most well-known for today.
Wyeth also illustrated for textbooks, magazines, calendars, posters and advertising. He often just left those originals with the publishers. Decades later, some companies have realized the immense value of their holdings. An original Wyeth painting, commissioned by a textbook company for an obscure 1923 American history book, recently sold at Sotheby’s. It is a depiction of George Washington taking command of the Continental Army. Sunshine filters through the leaves, dappling Washington’s legs and horse. It sold for $485,000.
This 1923 N. C. Wyeth illustration for an obscure American History textbook sold at Sotheby’s for $485,000 on Dec. 4, 2013.
Wyeth once said, “Painting and illustration cannot be mixed—one cannot merge from one into the other.”
I disagree. His illustrations are embedded in our memories of classic literature, as only special artistry can accomplish. And when original illustrative art sells for more than $1.3 million dollars, few can claim that it is not a valued painting.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs, and appraises collectibles.
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