NEWELL CONVERS WYETH
"BACK AND FORTH ACROSS IT WE WENT, TWISTING, STRAINING, HOLDING OUR STRENGTH, EACH STRIVING TO BREAK THE GRIP OF THE OTHER'S FINGERS ON HIS WRIST. I FELT HIS BREATH UPON MY FACE, SAW HIS COLD EYES LIKE BLUE FIRE BURNING ME"
Signed 'N.C. Wyeth' upper left, oil on canvas
30 1/4 × 40 1/4 in. (76.8 × 102.2 cm)
Executed in 1914.
The Artist's wife, Mrs. N.C. Wyeth.
By descent in the family.
Private Collection, North Carolina, since 1991.
Vingie E. Roe, "The Virtue of Neils Hansen," in Colliers Weekly, vol. 55, no. 10, May 22, 1915 (illustrated p. 10.)
Richard Layton, Inventory of Paintings in the Wyeth Studio, 1950," unpublished, Wyeth Family Archives, p. 49.
Douglas Allen and Douglas Allen, Jr., N. C. Wyeth, The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1972, p. 255.
Christine B. Podmaniczky, N.C. Wyeth, A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, London: Scala, 2008, volume I, I.548, p. 299 (illustrated).
Considered one of America's greatest illustrators, Newell Convers Wyeth garnered considerable acclaim for his work with the publishing company Charles Scribner's Sons, particularly for his compelling illustrations of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island in 1911.
"Back and Forth Across It We Went, Twisting, Straining, Holding Our Strength, Each Striving To Break the Grip of the Other's Fingers On His Wrist. I Felt His Breath Upon My Face, Saw His Cold Eyes Like Blue Fire Burning Me," is a quintessential work which the artist executed in 1914, at the height of the period known today as the Golden Age of Illustration.
The present work brilliantly demonstrates N.C. Wyeth's talent for narrative and composition. Here, the artist captures a dramatic knife fight as two men are vigorously trying to stab each other. Both figures are represented as two straining bodies, full of tension and anger, both incapable of garnering the advantage. Together, they form a distinct mass which occupies the center of the composition. Yet, each figure acts as a unique character, with the body position and facial features carefully thought out and incredibly presented. In the background, two female figures act as a silent, yet horrified, audience. Their expressions, both very well detailed, create a thoroughly engaging scene that fuels the viewer's imagination. Here, Wyeth employs a low-keyed palette of muted whites, blues and greys, which gives a timeless appeal to the painting. His specific use of light, highlighting some areas and shadowing others, ultimately heightens the drama and contributes to the theatrical nature of the scene.
The painting is an illustration for Vingie E. Roe's "The Virtue of Neils Hansen", a short-story published in Colliers Weekly in May 1915 (see black-and-white photograph). The story relates the rivalry between Neils Hansen, "trapper from the lower post of De Brisac on the Saskatchewan" and Jean Le Blanc, "best trapper in the North Woods, from the lower forts of civilization to the Qu'Appelle." After discovering Hansen's infidelity, Le Blanc confronts him in front of his wife, Elsa Braun, and his mistress, Fawn Eyes. The confrontation leads to a fight for the women's honor. As the narrator recalls: "That struggle should have had a ring of witnesses deep as the forest about. I [had] seen men fight for love and for gold and for all the things that men fight for, but never [had] I seen its like." After an endless combat, Neils Hansen eventually loses his grip on the snow and Jean Le Blanc gets the upper hand. As he is about to strike the final blow, the trapper is miraculously stopped by Fawn Eyes, who begs him to spare her blond "idol," becoming the true heroin of the story - the symbol of pure love over war.
Sold for $550,000 (buyer's premium included)