Magical and Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd, Part 1

As a curator, I can attest that every exhibition you work is significant on some level, whether it's bringing out a rarely-seen work of art from your collection, introducing visitors to a new artist, exploring challenging ideas, or any number of other concepts. Even if only a small number of people see the show, you've left an impact on them in some way. Living in Roswell, I know my shows have limited exposure, but I've gotten enough thank-you notes and cards over the years to know that I've been leaving a positive impact on the community.

Every now and then, however, you get the opportunity to work on a really important exhibition. It's the kind of show that leaves a mark on not only your visitors, but also the greater art canon, opening up new avenues for research and exploration. Such is the case with the co-curated exhibition that just opened at the James A. Michener Art Museum, Magical and Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd. I've periodically mentioned this exhibition here over the years, but it finally opened to the public on January 21, and I was there for the opening events. Today I'd like to share this special exhibition with you.

This is a long post, so make yourselves comfortable.

Before I launch into Hurd and Wyeth themselves, here's a little background on the exhibition itself. During the summer of 2014, Kirsten M. Jensen, Chief Curator at the James A Michener Art Museum, reached out to us about collaborating on a show. She had gotten the idea a few years earlier while working on a book about Pennsylvania Impressionist John Folinsbee. When she accepted the position at the Michener a few years later, she knew it would be a perfect venue for putting on this show, and recognizing the extent of our collection, reached out to us. I had been at the Roswell Museum for about a year when Kirsten first contacted me, and while I was by no means as knowledgeable about Hurd and Wyeth as I am now, I knew our collection was important and wanted to share it with a wider audience, as well as put our holdings in context within their larger careers.

We've been working on this show for nearly four years now, and after years of research, writing, travel, and negotiation, it's finally on view in Pennsylvania. With over 100 works on view spanning from the 1920s through the 1960s, it's a substantial representation of their careers, with nearly 20 pieces coming from the Roswell Museum alone.

Now that we've gotten that background in place, let's talk about the artists:

Henriette Wyeth, ca. 1928

Henriette Wyeth (1907-1998) was the eldest child of artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth. She studied primarily with her father, but also took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A child prodigy, she was an accomplished painter by the time she was a teenager, accepting portrait commissions as early as 16. A child of many interests, she maintained lifelong interests in dance, theatre, fashion, and music. She was also an intellectual, reading challenging contemporary works and being more than able to hold her own in conversation with the many artists, writers, and other visitors who frequented N.C.'s studio.  During the 1920s, she met and fell in love with Peter Hurd, one of N.C.'s students and a native of Roswell, New Mexico, and they married in 1929. After years of commuting between the Northeast and Southwest, they settled permanently in 1940 in San Patricio, located about fifty miles west of Roswell. Despite raising a family with three children and putting her husband's career before her own, Henriette remained a successful artist, painting portraits as well as deeply personal still life paintings and fantasies.

Peter Hurd, 1930s

Peter Hurd (1904-1984) was born and raised in Roswell, New Mexico, though he was also familiar with the Northeast, having spent the summers with his father's relatives in Boston. Unlike Henriette, he did not come from an artistic family. From his father, an attorney specializing in land and water rights, he inherited a love of conservation, and he also shared his mother's love of horsemanship. From his friendships with Roswell's Hispanic residents, he became fluent in Spanish and developed of a passion for New Mexico's Spanish music and culture. He initially aspired to a military career and enrolled at West Point Academy, but dropped out after two years to pursue the arts. After some persistence he became a student of N.C. Wyeth, learning to paint as both an artist an illustrator. Although he loved the Wyeth family and appreciated Pennsylvania, he decided that he needed to set himself apart as an artist by painting New Mexico, and more specifically the southeastern region that he knew so intimately. Initially an oil painter, Hurd eventually adopted egg tempera as his medium of choice, believing that it better captured New Mexico's quality of light. Over the course of his career, he would work as both an artist and illustrator, painting his beloved New Mexico while also completing illustration assignments around the world.

Curating the lives of these two artists was a big challenge because their work was so diverse. While we initially considered dividing the works by geographic locale, we eventually opted to separate the works by artist, giving Hurd and Wyeth their own sections. Kirsten in particular felt this was critical for Wyeth so that visitors would see her as an artist with her own distinct voice as opposed to simply an artist's spouse, as is what happens to so many women artists. So we divided the works by artist, and took a similar approach to our research. Given his prominence within the Roswell community, I focused on Hurd, while Kirsten concentrated on Wyeth.

The first gallery looks at the larger Wyeth family, from Henriette's siblings to her children and grandchildren, all of whom who used as models at various points. This is the one space where we included works by Hurd as well, since he and Wyeth both painted their middle daughter, Ann Carol, with regular frequency.

In the next gallery, visitors get to see Wyeth's skills as a portraitist and still life painter through a group of works done in the 1920s and 1930s. Friends with the DuPonts and other high-profile families, Wyeth was perfectly comfortable with painting high society, and had an especially active social life in the 1920s. A lot of these sitters also bought Wyeth's other paintings, so they're portraits of patronage as well as friends and acquaintances.

While our visitors in Roswell probably know Wyeth best as a naturalistic painter of still life and portraiture, during the 1920s and 1930s she also explored the more expressive qualities of Modernsim through a group of highly personalized works known collectively as the fantasies. Featuring doll-like figures and diaphanous, pastel colors, these paintings have a strong dream-like quality that sets them apart from her other work. As Kirsten argues, however, these paintings aren't as sweet as they initially seem, and the longer you look at them, the more you realize there is a darker quality to them, reflecting Wyeth's personal struggles as she not only transitioned into the roles of young wife and mother, but also contemplated the prospect of moving away from her family in Chadds Ford to New Mexico.

Kirsten argues that Wyeth's contemporary critics misunderstood Wyeth's fantasies because they weren't comfortable with seeing such strongly personal works from a woman artist. Wyeth's personal struggles often stemmed from her position as a twentieth-century woman  trying to reconcile the roles of wife, mother, and artist, and to see such strongly feminine perspectives presented through the visual language of Modernism was relatively uncommon at the time. Instead, they focused on the paintings' decorative qualities, describing them as "charming" or "sweet." 

Who are you calling charming?

Works like The Witch, however, show that Wyeth's work are anything but sentimental. Indeed, throughout her career, Wyeth's work reflected her interest in such opposing qualities as life and death, lightness and darkness. In the fantasies, nothing is ever just beautiful. 

The highlight of the fantasy group in this exhibition is The Picnic, a lost-long mural that Kirsten and I rediscovered in 2015. Painted in the 1920s, it hung in the Wyeth home until the 1970s, when Wyeth's sister Carolyn slashed it out of its frame and mailed it to her. Distraught at the damage done to the work, Wyeth gave it to a friend and fellow artist named Linda Miller, who kept it in storage for about 40 years. The work was in very poor condition when we first saw it, but after more than two years of negotiation, the Michener acquired it and had it conserved with a grant from Bank of America, just in time for this exhibition. There's a lot more to this tale than what I've written here, but that's another story.

The final section on Wyeth looks at her career in New Mexico. After years of commuting, Wyeth decided to relocate to New Mexico in 1939, moving there in 1940. It was a difficult decision, she was very close with her family after all, but Hurd had bought a place out West in 1934, Sentinel Ranch. Knowing that she would never consider it otherwise, he had a studio built out there for her.

Frustrated with the reception of her fantasies, Wyeth had stopped painting them to focus on the magical elements of everyday life, concentrating on still life and portraiture. Influenced by her southwest environs, her work also became increasingly bright and Impressionistic, with her brushwork gaining a light, feathery quality. Despite her focus on more tangible subject matter, however, she never lost interest in exploring the light and dark qualities of life through asymmetrical compositions, the use of dramatic cast shadows, and other visual cues.

Now let's take a look at Peter Hurd. Although I wrote the labels for these works, Kirsten also devised the layout based on conversations we'd had over the years. When the works come to our Museum, I'll use a similar layout while keeping in mind our different gallery spaces.

Hurd's section considers not only the variety of his work as an artist and illustrator, but also his own journey to find his artistic voice. Although he felt indebted to N.C. Wyeth for his teachings and mentorship, he worried that he was little more than an imitator, and wanted to set himself apart. Whereas Henriette Wyeth distinguished herself through her personal compositions and explorations of expressive Modernism, Hurd focused on subject matter and medium, painting New Mexico in egg tempera rather than the oil paint in which he had been trained.

To show this journey, we feature some of Hurd's early Pennsylvania works in oil, as well as some early New Mexico scenes in which he tries out different painting styles. From there, viewers can get a better appreciation of his developments in egg tempera, as well as his eventual focus on southeastern New Mexico. This was the land he had grown up in, and he painted this region with a beauty and dignity that continues to move viewers today.

The great thing about pairing works from our collection with pieces from other museums is that we can show Hurd's stylistic evolution in egg tempera. El Mocho on the left from the Art Institute of Chicago, painted in 1936, is done in a highly gestural manner with broad, loose brushwork. As Hurd became more accustomed to the medium, he developed a more refined, traditional style for works such as Portrait of Peggy on the right, done in 1948.

We also featured works from other members of the Wyeth family, from N.C. to John McCoy, in order to show the greater dialogue happening within the Wyeth circle. Although each family member endeavored to establish his or her own artistic voice, they were also influenced by one another, whether they were sharing similar models or props, or trying out different stylistic elements. Hurd in particular was an important influence on the Wyeth family because he introduced both N.C. and Andrew, Henriette's youngest brother, to egg tempera. He also shared pigments he made from the minerals he harvested on his ranch with them, including the yellow ocher that would help define Andrew's stark palette.

In addition to Hurd's personal artistic journey, we also want to showcase the diversity of his career. Although our visitors know him best as a painter of southwest landscapes and portraits, Hurd was also a successful illustrator, whether he was creating advertisements, book illustrations, or even documenting wartime activity for Life magazine, as he did during World War II.

This advertisement for Lucky Strike was done in the 1940s. Note the rendering of light through the tobacco leaf.

Some of Hurd's World War II paintings.

In addition to egg tempera paintings, we also feature Hurd's drawings and watercolors in order to show viewers the changes and continuities of his style across different media. Despite the variety of his subject matter, the love of the Southwest clearly dominates his strongest works. 

For me, what is especially exciting is to chance to see our works be so beautifully presented, and for several of these works, this is the first time I've seen them out of the vault in a gallery setting.

The Oasis, painted in 1945, has been in vault waiting for this show.

The other exciting facet about this exhibition is the catalogue. Any time you do an important show, you should have a catalogue accompany it, because it's an important resource for scholars, providing important content as well as documenting the exhibition itself. For this publication, we split the catalogue into two books, one for Wyeth and one for Hurd. Having become the expert on Henriette Wyeth, Kirsten wrote volume 1, while Leo Mazow, Melissa Renn, and I wrote the essays on Hurd for volume 2, as he's the better known of the two and it's easier to find people who can write about him with authority. Available in the Michener's Museum Shop, the books and beautifully designed, and will hopefully be an important resource for other scholars in the coming years. 

For Kirsten and myself, we don't see this retrospective as the culmination of all work on these two artists, but rather as a gateway for other scholars and researchers. This shouldn't be the final show, but the first of many future exhibitions, whether they come from us, or others interested in their work.

I really have to commend the Michener Museum and Kirsten in particular for the beautiful job they did on this show. She created the layout for the exhibition, and with the help of her preparatory team, a talented local graphic designer, and a very organized collections management staff, she's made a beautiful installation. Moreover, her determination and expertise as a scholar and curator brought this project to fruition. We may be co-curators, but it was her persistence that really brought this project together.

Magical and Real is on view in Pennsylvania until May 6, 2018. It will be at the Roswell Museum from June 15-September 16, 2018. Once we've opened it here I'll write part 2 of this post, where I'll share our experiences with hosting this exhibition. In this meantime, be sure to visit the show if you're in Doylestown this winter or spring. It's a gorgeous installation and the talented staff at the Michener deserve to have their work be seen. 


  1. It was a fantastic exhibit eye opening - a fan of Andrew's we made sure to catch up with this one. There was an enormous amount of art to view and the museum layout was well done. Inspiring and informative.


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