N.C. Wyeth and 'The Giant'

Bill Engle died before he could paint his masterpiece—so a friend did it for him.



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N.C. Wyeth’s "The Giant" has hung in the Westtown School’s dining room for almost 90 years.The young are remembered differently than the old. Adults who have died are recalled for their work, their heroic deeds or the families they created. The young? Mostly for lost dreams.

And so it is with The Giant, a 1923 oil painting created in memory of a young artist who had intended to paint something like it himself. Instead, William Clothier Engle died of tuberculosis only a few years after graduating from the Westtown School in 1910.

“Bill had always meant to execute a scene like this of children by the sea, looking up into the clouds,” William Ellis Coale, a former classmate, wrote in the 1940s. “But his early death precluded this, so that his old friend and master created this fitting memorial, and thus fulfilled the pupil’s dream.”

The friend in question is N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew. Commissioned by Engle’s former classmates, Wyeth’s 5-by-6-foot painting has hung for nearly 90 years in the school’s dining room. According to an archivist, “not even a speck of food” has ever been found on the canvas, though generations of middle- and high-school-age students have eaten their daily meals only a few feet away. Today, it’s protected only by a motion detector that squawks if anyone comes too close.

Engle grew up mostly in Newark, N.J., though he spent summers in Beach Haven working at his uncle’s tourist hotel, the Engleside. His father, David, was a printer who also played flute in the Newark Symphony and was a sport fisherman who made his own rods. Engle’s mother, Margaret Clothier, was from a branch of the same family that produced Strawbridge & Clothier’s co-founder. The family was Quaker, so after Engle was through elementary school, his parents chose to continue his education in the “guarded” environment of Westtown.

Founded in 1799, Westtown was part of Philadelphia-area Quakers’ reaction to their loss of political, economic and social status during the Revolution. Quakers had opposed the War for Independence and were still widely viewed as traitors. That ostracism led them to withdraw from the wider world. They avoided politics and enforced rules against intermarriage.

To preserve and pass on their beliefs—and, in particular, to help Quaker children find appropriate spouses—the Friends turned to their schools. New ones were founded and older ones became more exclusive. Some that had previously accepted non-Quaker students began to turn them away. Westtown provided room and board, which allowed faculty and administration to fully steep their charges in Quaker values and behavior.

Even “[Westtown’s] distant location,” according to a school history, “was an intentional effort by the Philadelphia Quakers to keep their children away from the influences of the city.” The result was a strong familial atmosphere in which lifelong relationships were formed—and in which Engle made many friends.

Decades later, Coale described Engle as a tall, thin artist and philosopher. “Between classes, he was always out with brush and palette, painting about the countryside near the school,” he wrote.

In the course of this, Engle met Wyeth. Still mostly unknown then, Wyeth had moved from Massachusetts to Chadds Ford in 1902 to study with his mentor, illustrator Howard Pyle. “Several of my classmates can recall with me the privilege in our senior year of visiting Mr. Wyeth’s studio and of seeing him and Bill put on canvas the rich colors of the Brandywine Valley,” Coale wrote.

Engle had originally planned to attend Haverford College after graduating from Westtown, but his experience with Wyeth apparently led to a change of plans. In the fall of 1910, he began three years of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1913, he moved to Chadds Ford to work in Wyeth’s studio.

The two men were close, and Wyeth’s letters show that Engle was more than a mere assistant. In June 1913, he wrote to his parents, “Sunday blew in cold as March, and exceedingly clear. We drove over for Engle, who was attending a reunion at Westtown. We spent a bully day in his company. He stayed overnight.”
 

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