I n 1940, N.C. Wyeth was commissioned by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to paint a series of murals for its New York Headquarters at One Madison Avenue, a group of paintings which would collectively become known as The New England Series. The murals were to “serve as the graphic and dramatic expression of the spirit of New England,” 1 and the artist, who grew up in Massachusetts, needed only look to his family history for inspiration:
New England was where I was born, raised, and educated. I felt, therefore, that of all the subjects possible, this was the one I knew best. The romance of early colonization, especially that of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, had always excited me. My ancestor, Nicholas Wyeth, came from Wales to Massachusetts in 1647. The spirit of early days on the Massachusetts coast was an oft-discussed subject in my home.
I was born in Needham, not far from the town of Plymouth, to which I made many pilgrimages during my boyhood, spending thrilling days in and around that historic territory. With this as a background, it was natural that my mind and heart should fly to Plymouth and to the Pilgrims as a fitting and appropriate subject for a series of New England paintings. 2
Eventually, nineteen murals were conceived to bring the world of the Pilgrims to life, providing MetLife’s employees with “a delightful escape from the weary humdrum… into a world of fantastic imagery, humor, and life.” Installed in the employee lounge and escalator landings, each panel illustrated moments from story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, including the journey of the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving, and the courtship of John and Priscilla Alden. In true Wyeth fashion, the scenes are highly romanticized, depictions of a fertile land full of possibilities, imagination, and adventure. While we know the Pilgrims faced great hardship, in Wyeth’s Plymouth, hard work and faith beget bounty: against backdrops of vivid autumn foliage, crops are harvested, wildlife abounds, and life in the community is celebrated.
As was his custom, Wyeth painted the murals in his studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, moving them to MetLife's One Madison Avenue complex when almost complete and making his final adjustments in-situ. The first two murals, The Thanksgiving Feast and Thanksgiving with the Indians (originally conceived as one work) were installed in the MetLife building’s main employee lounge in 1941. Over the following years, Wyeth worked on the other canvases and, with MetLife’s approval, expanded his original concept to include more scenes devoted to birds and deer, intended to convey the quietude of nature that the Pilgrims found at Plymouth. Unfortunately, he would never fully realize his vision, for in 1945, his life was cut short at age 63 by a tragic automobile accident. Upon his death, Wyeth had finished fourteen murals for MetLife. Guided by his sketches, the five remaining panels were completed in 1948 by his son, Andrew, and his son-in-law, John McCoy, both pupils of the artist.
In subsequent decades, time took its toll on The New England Series, and in 1984, a two-year and $500,000 restoration project was undertaken. After initial onsite work, the murals were removed for general treatment and mounted on stretchers for exhibition purposes. “Taking them off the wall allowed them to breathe,” observed Margaret Watherston, the conservator responsible for the project. “They have more surface quality, more vitality now, looking more as they did when Wyeth painted them in his studio.”
After treatment, the newly restored paintings were returned to MetLife and shown at the inaugural exhibition of the Metropolitan Life Gallery, which ran from November 1985 to April 1986. At its conclusion, the works traveled to the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock and the Hechscher Museum in Huntington, New York. Upon their return home, the murals were rehung at One Madison Avenue where they remained for over thirty years. Today, Sotheby’s is thrilled to bring them to market for the very first time.
1 Douglas Allen & Douglas Allen, Jr., N. C. Wyeth, The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, New York, 1972, p. 169.
2 N.C. Wyeth quoted in ibid., pp. 169-71.