Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492

N.C. Wyeth, Needham’s Famous Son

Needham’s most famous son founded an American artistic dynasty.

Speaking with any group of children, one of them will always ask – who is the most famous person from Needham? Needham has had its share of scientists, soldiers, and sports heroes – but I think the answer to this question is the great artist and illustrator, N.C. Wyeth.

Newell Convers Wyeth was born on October 22, 1882, at the family’s home on South Street. On his father’s side, the family was as old as American history, settling in Cambridge in 1645; ancestors dumped British tea into Boston Harbor and harassed the Redcoats at Lexington. On his mother’s, it was as new as the American promise; Wyeth’s grandfather, Denys Zirngiebel, left Switzerland in 1855 seeking better fortunes.

Trained as a botanist, Zirngiebel settled in Cambridge and took a job with the Harvard Botanical Gardens. His neighbor in Cambridge was Andrew Newell Wyeth; both families were young, and their children grew up as friends. In a few years, Zirngiebel purchased land in Needham, along the river on South Street, to build his own greenhouses. Fifteen years later, Wyeth’s son and Zirngiebel’s daughter married. A home was built for the couple next door to the Zirngiebel home, and the South Street land became an extended family compound.  N.C. Wyeth was the oldest of four brothers.

Wyeth showed artistic talent at an early age, a talent that thrilled his mother, but not his more practical father. Unlike his brothers, he did not attend Needham High School. He was first sent to the Mechanics Arts School in Boston (a more useful outlet for his talents, his father said), but soon transferred to the Massachusetts Normal Arts School (now the MA College of Art). In 1902, he left Needham, accepting an invitation to study with the great illustrator, Howard Pyle in Wilmington, DE.

Pyle’s intensive teaching incorporated not only the fundamentals of technique, but also the importance of physical action and first-hand experience. He called this “Mental Projection” – the artist must “live in the picture,” for the picture to be successful. Thus, to illustrate a cowboy story for the Saturday Evening Post, Wyeth went West and worked for a time as a cowboy and as pony-express rider in Colorado.

Wyeth married Carolyn Bockius of Wilmington in 1906, and they settled in nearby Chadds Ford, PA. They had five children, three of whom (notably, their son Andrew) became artists as well. Wyeth’s career as an illustrator took off, with significant commissions for magazines, books, public murals, and the famous series of illustrated classics published by Scribner’s in the 1920s.

Wyeth was even intended to fill a commission in Needham. Panels were reserved for murals in the main lobby of the new High School when it was completed in 1930. For unknown reasons, however, the murals were never painted and the spaces remain plain.

Despite his long absence, Wyeth maintained a nostalgic longing for Needham and his family. Every evening for more than 30 years, he would practice a personal form of Mental Projection – facing northeast toward the “Old Homestead,” and imagining himself back home in Needham.

Finally, in 1921 he decided to move his family back to South Street. He built himself a studio where his grandfather’s greenhouses once stood and enrolled his children in the old Harris School on Great Plain Avenue, which he himself had attended as a child.

The move was a disaster. After twenty years of nostalgic memories, Wyeth was unprepared for the changes he found in the town. The rural community he left was rapidly becoming transformed into a commuter town. He could not get used to the town’s increasingly cosmopolitan population and the transformation of the old farms into summer estates: “I feel at times that it is eating my heart out! I can hardly turn my head these days [than] something I have grown to love is being destroyed…” Nor was his family happy. With no fond memories of Needham to fall back on, they were homesick and unsettled. Two years later, the Wyeths moved back to Chadd’s Ford to stay.

Wyeth died in 1945 at the age of 63, when the car he was driving stalled on a train crossing near his home. In his life, he painted over 3000 pictures and illustrated 112 books. He launched the artistic careers of three of his children, founding a true dynasty of American painters.

– by Gloria Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum