"On entering the amphitheatre, new objects of wonder presented themselves. On a level spot in the centre was a company of odd-looking personages playing at ninepins. They were dressed in quaint outlandish fashion; some wore short doublets, others jerkins, with long knives in their belts, and most of them had enormous breeches, of similar style with that of the guide's. Their visages, too, were peculiar; one had a large head, broad face, and small piggish eyes; the face of another seemed to consist entirely of nose, and was surmounted by a white sugar-loaf hat, set off with a little red cock's tail. They all had beards, of various shapes and colors. There was one who seemed to be the commander. He was a stout old gentleman, with a weather-beaten countenance; he wore a laced doublet, broad belt and hanger, high-crowned hat and feather, red stockings, and high-heeled shoes, with roses in them. The whole group reminded Rip of the figures in an old Flemish painting, in the parlor of Dominie Van Schaick, the village parson, and which had been brought over from Holland at the time of the settlement. What seemed particularly odd to Rip was, that though these folks were evidently amusing themselves, yet they maintained the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence, and were, withal, the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed. Nothing interrupted the stillness of the scene but the noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder."
Wyeth executed the present work at the height of the period known today as the Golden Age of Illustration. By this time, Wyeth had achieved commercial success after studying at Howard Pyle’s eponymous school and selling his first drawing to The Saturday Evening Post in 1903. He gained further recognition when he received a commission from Charles Scribner's Sons to provide the accompanying images for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in 1911, after which he became a highly sought-after illustrator of the most prominent novels of the day. These commissions allowed the artist’s bright, bold and dynamic aesthetic to deeply ingrain itself within the national popular consciousness as Wyeth proved his ability to bring iconic characters and their escapades to life again and again. Wyeth was particularly respected for the spirit of adventure he seamlessly conjured in his images, which often not only complemented but also enhanced a narrative. Here, Wyeth utilizes his romantic vision of the Catskill Mountain landscape to emphasize the exciting journey on which Rip Van Winkle is about to depart. Indeed, standing prominently in the foreground atop a rocky mountain peak, Van Winkle adopts a heroic stance with his gun and faithful dog, Wolf, primed at the ready for any danger that might befall them. Wyeth’s expressive brushwork further emphasizes the rugged nature of the environment, untouched by human presence save Rip and these mysterious men.
The sublime and almost Edenic interpretation of the American landscape that Wyeth presents here ultimately manifests itself within the entirety of his oeuvre. As Douglas Allen explains, “there is a heroic treatment of anatomy, for example, that makes a Wyeth masculine type so gloriously strong and virile—you look for a new discovery and technique—then that romance of color, of wave, of cloud—of those authentic, yet fascinating ships that toss or float over seas, fabulously stormy or credibly calm” (N.C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, New York, 1972, p. 140).
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