Friday, January 15, 2016
Fine Arts Friday: Winter Is for Wyeth 2
Crows in Winter by N. C. Wyeth, 1941
N. C. Wyeth painted Crows in Winter as part of a set of four seasonal paintings for MetLife, painted in oil. The other three are Canada Geese in Spring, Herons in Summer, and Mallards in Autumn. Of the four, however, Crows in Winter stands out for its almost Japanese woodcut quality. N. C. Wyeth created this effect in the painting, as can be seen from his sketch, which presents a less flat character.
In the sketch, Wyeth has drawn the differentiation in the crow's bodies and wings as they fly, and the valley below and the ice in the trees are shaded. In the painting, though, perhaps the stark juxtaposition of the crows against the sky led him to leave any differentiation behind in the sketch and take advantage of this starkness to make the painting more dramatic, and the crows look almost like black paper cutouts against the sky. For the most part, the snow on the pine tree on the right gets the same treatment, losing all shading the closer it gets to the crows. Against the flatness of the crows and the snow and the smoothing out of the snow in the valley below, the branches of the tree on the lower left look like a fragile fan spread out by an unseen hand. The snow and crows also stand out against the mushroom-nuanced sky. The total effect is an arresting painting. Its simplicity and color denote cold and winter; the sky may well bring more snow.
The sketch was produced in 1940, so it is likely that the painting was created before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but it is hard not to see in the head-on view of the flock of crows an acknowledgement of the ominous war that was already engulfing Asia and Europe and that was surely on everyone's mind.
At the age of 59, N.C. Wyeth was struggling to be a painter rather than an illustrator, and numbers of his paintings at this time show a totally new style, as he borrows from here or there, but the style remains undeveloped in subsequent paintings. In this case, the elder Wyeth has created a work that calls to mind Mary Cassatt's simplifying style in some of her works in homage to Japanese woodblocks. Crows in Winter seems to be another, short-lived experiment by Wyeth. Unfortunately, he died only four years later in an accident, and we do not know where ultimately his painterly seeking might have led him. Although his later work Nightfall (1945) is well loved, including by me, I believe that his finest paintings (that are not illustrations) are his stilllifes. But that's for another Friday.