Send to printerClose window

N.C. Wyeth and 'The Giant'

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

By Mark E. Dixon

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.”
 

Continued on page 2 ...
 

And the mentoring seems to have gone both ways. In late 1913, Wyeth was struggling over his career direction—whether to continue as primarily an illustrator of magazine stories or to stretch for paintings that would establish him as a true artist. It was something he would struggle with throughout his career.

“It is nearly easy,” Wyeth wrote to his brother, “to convince oneself that ‘sticking it out,’ as Papa says, would be the most courageous and helpful course to pursue. But as Bill Engle adds, ‘It takes more courage to give up the proposition in your circumstances than to stick it out.’ And I agree with him.”

This arrangement between the two didn’t last long, as Engle’s health had already begun to fail. In 1912, he’d spent the summer in Iowa, working on the family farm of a Westtown classmate in hopes of being restored by several months of outdoor life. But, wrote Coale, Engle’s “philosophical mind and artistic bent did not make him a natural at milking cows.”

When illness became invalidism, Engle went home to Newark. He died on his 25th birthday.

How the idea of a memorial painting to Engle originated isn’t mentioned in Westtown’s history or in Wyeth biographies. In 1920, Westtown’s Class of 1910 met for its 10-year reunion. Perhaps one classmate shared the idea with another, and it took off. But a painting it was, and Wyeth agreed to take on the project for $500.

Wyeth’s specialty was magazine and book illustration. His first commission, in 1903, had been of a cowboy on a bucking bronco for the Saturday Evening Post. He went on to illustrate entire editions of classic stories like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans and Robinson Crusoe, among others. He approached the Westtown project in the same vein.

Wyeth’s first proposal, according to a 1972 school newsletter, was a series of pictures depicting scenes from Homer’s Odyssey that would hang in the Boys’ Collection Room.

“The administration, however, felt the cost of redecorating the woodwork in that large room was too great,” wrote the newsletter’s editor, Cathy Larmore. “And hence, the present dining room south wall was chosen.”

In 1921, Wyeth had considered permanently relocating to Needham, Mass., his hometown. His mother was ailing, and he was nostalgic for the place where he’d grown up. He even set up a studio behind his grandfather’s house. But that December, “the worst sleet storm in local history,” as the Needham Chronicle called it, changed the face of the town.

“N.C. stood on his studio steps,” wrote N.C. Wyeth biographer David Michaelis, “watching with grim irony as the boughs he had played under as a boy, and that he had planned for years to paint, broke into pieces before his eyes.”

The paper said it was as if a giant had swung a scythe. That image was about all Wyeth salvaged from his brief return to Needham. A striding giant became the central motif in four holiday posters that Wyeth created in 1922 for the U.S. Treasury along with the Westtown commission.

Wyeth’s The Giant—painted at Beach Haven, Engle’s old haunt—shows six children gazing up at a club-toting giant that no adult could likely see. Five are Wyeth’s own, including blond Andrew standing nearest the sea. At left, a sixth child—a boy in a white cap—is presumed to represent Engle.

In a letter to his mother, Wyeth said the painting caused a “sensation” when he exhibited it. To the Wilmington Evening Journal, it represented how “the human mind, being itself the fanciful creation of a great Creator, becomes in turn a creator of fancy.”

Headmaster James Walker and his wife picked up the painting at Wyeth’s studio and carried it back to the school in an orchard truck.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.