Or A Most Unusual Odyssey
“A picture is worth a thousand words”.
Where does that saying come from anyway?
Not from Confucius, but more likely from a clever American copywriter from the early 1900’s.
The earliest available candidate is from the text of an instructional talk given by the newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane to the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club, in March 1911: “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”
Second in line is an article by Fred R. Barnard in Printers’ Ink, an advertising trade journal, promoting the use of images in streetcar ads. The December 8, 1921 issue sports an ad entitled, “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words.” Barnard claimed the phrase’s source to be oriental, “so said a famous Japanese philosopher”, adding helpfully, since he’d likely made it all up: “and he was right!”
The best-known is another ad by Barnard, in the March 10, 1927 issue of the same magazine, with the phrase “One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words,” where it is labelled as a “Chinese proverb”. Barnard later said he called it a Chinese proverb “so that people would take it seriously.” (Ascribing wisdom, sloth and cruelty in varying measure to the Orient is a long literary tradition on the West; the ancient Greeks were already doing it.) Naturally, it was subsequently attributed to Confucius. From Japan to China, plus nine thousand words… Wherever Barnard found the quote, however, it is apprently genuine. It is meant to emphasize that the power of images is so strong that they may be more influential than a substantial amount of text. His transcription, while it is certainly close enough, is obviously much more catchy. (Do read the text accompanying the advert, you’ll see that advertiser’s language hasn’t much evolved since the 20’s. As for the “great appeal of the expression on the boy’s face”… that smile strikes me as being frankly a little creepy. Thankfully, though, some things have changed. The ad says “NO ALUM”. Alum is “a colorless astringent compound that is a hydrated double sulfate of aluminum and potassium, used in solution medicinally and in dyeing and tanning”. Now, when one of the selling points is that it has no alum that clearly implies that there was alum prior to that. Perhaps that explains the expression on the lad’s appealing countenance…)
And, while we’re doing math and history, there are other examples.
“Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours,” or “A good sketch is better than a long speech” – Napoleon Bonaparte. (It should be noted that Napoleon demanded of his officers that they be competent sketch artists; artisitic training – skill at drawing accurate depictions of terrain – was part of military training.)
“One timely deed is worth ten thousand words” – The Works of Mr. James Thomson, 1802.
“That tear, good girl, is worth ten thousand words” – The Trust: A Comedy, in Five Acts, 1808.
“One fact well understood by observation, and well guided development, is worth a thousand times more than a thousand words” – The American Journal of Education, 1858.
“The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.” Ivan S. Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons”, 1862
“Every picture tells a story.” Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills, USA, early 20th century. (The advertisement featured a man clutching his lower back.)
Or, to quote John McCarthy, computer scientist: “As the Chinese say, 1001 words is worth more than a picture.”
The Odyssey of Homer, translated by George Herbert Palmer, with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, was published by Houghton-Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massechussets, in 1929.
So, this is going to be a newsletter light on the words side, because it’s all about these striking pictures by Wyeth.
From left to right:
Cover, endpapers & title page
Left: The Mourning Penelope, Athene, Telemachus in the Chariot of Nester, Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea.
Right: Odysseus and Calypso, The Raft of Odysseus, Polyphemus the Cyclops, Circe and the Swine.
Left: Odysseus in the Land of the Dead, The Sirens, Eumaeus the Swineherd, The Beggars’ Fight.
Right: The Boar Hunt, The Trial of the Bow, The Slaughter of the Suitors, Odysseus and Penelope Reunited.
Oh to have been a fly on the wall of Wyeth’s studio as he was painting these. Clearly less comfortable than when he was doing his more standard pantheon of frontiersmen, outlaws or buccaneers, Wyeth nevertheless abandons his normal approach and abolishes space in favour of texture and deco. Clearly, he regrets not being able to paint real nudes, covering them, at least half-heartedly, in gossamer cloth, rolling cloud and unlikely poses. What was the Renaissance if not the perfect pretext to explore the human body, under cover of the classics – but Wyeth doesn’t quite dare. After all, he is delivering these to a publishing company, not to a gallery, and perhaps his penchant for dressing like a Puritan reflected a strict education. Possibly, he has been poring over documentation on classical Greece, perhaps Minoan and Mycenean, what with Schliemann and Evans having only recently been industriously digging their ways through myth and rubble towards Homer’s Troy at Hirciluk and the Minos’ Labyrinth at Knossos; his paintings convey something of the “modernity” of the restorations made by Guillérion and son. (Schliemann poked around Knossos and Mycenae too, but dropped Minos and Agamemnon in favour of Priam, finally setting his sights on Troy, undertaking one of the greatest underhanded cloak-and-dagger digs in modern archaeology.)
They owe less to the classical realism of the Hudson River and its tributary, the Brandywine and his mentor Pyle than to some dreamed-of Antiquity; his Odysseas tied to the mast of his ship is Christ-like; there is an urgency in his depiction of waves and clouds, closer to Impressionism than Illustration. The paintings are icons in the true sense of the word, a window on anothr world, all are doubly framed compositions, frames within frames. The sea is vertical. The sky is opaque, the sun within arm’s reach, through clouds that can be wrenched aside by hand, they are so close.
In “N.C. Wyeth: the Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals”, by Douglas Allen (Bonanza Books, 1972), has this to say about Wyeth’s illustrations for Homer: “While Wyeth was working on the paintings for The Odyssey of Homer (Houghton-Mifflin) Scribner’s approached him about illustrating Gulliver’s travels…” Now isn’t that frustrating? “Visions of Adventure: N. C. Wyeth and the Brandywine Artists” does not mention the Odyssey, and the only Homer in the index is Winslow.
According to biographer David Michaelis, the circumstances surrounding the commission were dramatic. Wyeth’s mother had recently been commited to a sanatorium, and had passed away. His nine-year-old daughter lay seven weeks with peritonitis from a ruptured appendix, and insistent calls came from Wyeth’s editor Houghton-Mifflin: at eighty-one, Palmer’s health was failing. Scheduled for an operation in October of that year, one of his last wishes was that Wyeth confirm his acceptance to illustrate the Odyssey.
Wyeth, always phenomenally prolific, had so far that year of 1924, produced illustrations for “David Balfour” (the sequel to “Kidnapped”), illustrations for “The Legend of Charlemagne” by Thomas Bulfinch, eight largem murals for a Boston bank and a triptych for New York City’s Rooseveldt Hotel. Hesitating about fixing a date fro Ulysses, he told his editor “I’ve been busy.” Palmer’s one hope and goal in life became meeting Wyeth, and he was “counting the days” until the illustrator would come to visit. Scheduled for operation on October 1st, “No one was optimistic about the old man surviving the operation.”
Wyeth faced medical bills and deadlines with increasing frustration. “The son deemed least likely to succeed, the impractical artist, now bankrolled the whole family.” He lost ten pounds though stress and worry. Not only that, Wyeth had demons of his own to tussle with. “Professionally I am at a positive standstill,” he wrote in 1926. “It is a precise warning of what lies ahead of me for heaven knows how long.” His latest work found no more grace in his eyes than his earliest efforts: “In each case I have loathed the thing done, and therefore have suffered the torments of hell.” Wyeth estimated he could have made a name for himself as a landscape painter “had I not bitched myself with accursed success in skin-deep pictures and illustrations.”
In 1929, he was finally working on the commission. According to Michaelis: “A group of art students, visiting his studio one day in 1929, asked to see the original canvases for The Odyssey and then looked on as the famous illustrator showed them Polyphemus, the Cyclops (1929) and Odysseus and Calypso (1929). Wyeth imagined from their silence and their ‘sniffing’ that the students were sneering at his work, and he flew into a rage.” The same students, however, “figuratively began to bootlick” when he showed them a half-finished portrait of his mother, painted after her death. He ushered them out “being careful to insinuate that I had dozens of similar efforts facing the wall (which I haven’t of course!).”
In Michaelis’ words: “The man who had painted Treasure Island in the white heat of sixteen weeks had taken ten years to sort himself out over George Herbert Palmer’s Odyssey of Homer. He made three false starts, destroying an entire set of canvases, a measure he had rarely taken in earlier years, even at his most frustrated. With its blatantly borrowed modernistic influences, its stiff, prismatic treatment of form and color, the Wyeth edition of the Odyssey, published by Houghton Miffin in 1929 confirmed how disgusted he had grown with himself as a ‘storybook painter.’”
Quite frankly, “blatantly borrowed modernistic influences, its stiff, prismatic treatment of form and color” seems a harsh dismissal of an extraordinary set of illustrations. (And one of the pitfalls for the reader of any biography: taking at face value all judgements made by the biographer, especailly as sparsely illustrated an edition as this one. What exactly does “stiff, prismatic treatment of form” mean anyway?) It seems rather that Wyeth sensed a novel treatment was required for Homer, but despite his astonishing dexterity with landscapes and narrative closer to home, Homer’s Greece was just too far afield, under a light too bright and foreign to him. Rather than a frustration as an illustrator who yearned for recognition as a painter, his frutration stemmed from not being able to find solutions for purely illustrative problems, Charybde and Scylla from between which no “painterly” skills could have rescued him. This belies his almost arrogant skill at other subjects, revealing a Wyeth vulnerable to his subject, beset by the need to abandon, just this once, his traditional “tricks of the trade” and treat the subject somehow differently. It is a testimony to the artist Wyeth far more revealing and sincere than any grudging recognition from the fine art establishment.
In any event, George Herbert Palmer hung on and lived to see the publication of the book. He died in 1933, at th age of 89. An exhibition of the 16 paintings for The Odyssey took place at the St. Botolph Club, Boston, from Jan. 17-Feb. 1, 1930. To my regret, I haven’t been able to find either Palmer’s thoughts on the book, or any articles on the exhibition.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” So, I count this newsletter at about 17,000, only a fraction being mine, the sixteen pictures counting for the rest.
The most interesting bit about all this, though, is the seeming opposition between words and imagery implied by the saying. The true meaning of the Chinese proverb is that there are many ways of expressing an idea, whether in words or pictures or a symbiosis of both. The best communication is with both words and pictures, it is not an “either/or” or “better than” deal at all. Words and pictures deserve to live in harmony.
It’s something we need to work at though.
All quotes concerning Wyeth’s difficulties with the Odyssey are from N. C. WYETH: A BIOGRAPHY, David Michaelis, Knopf, 1998.
Last summer, at the same time we shot the clip for Forging Dragons, we also did one for “Lost Worlds”, which will be published in October of this year. More (lots more – the project took me ages to complete) on the actual book will follow as we draw a little closer to the publishing date, but in the meantime, here is the clip.
I get so many enquiries I lose count – tattoos, information, requests for just about everything, to which I dutifully attempt to reply, occasionally even successfully. Usually, that’s the last I hear from people, so when something like this crops up out of nowhere, I’m delighted. Years ago, I illustrated jack & the Beanstalk for Little, Brown & Company. I no longer have all the images, nor do I even have a copy of the book, but I must have shown the giant’s table in one, because a gentleman named Stephen Beatty wrote: “In the early nineties, my wife bought a book by you, because she loved the illustrations. The book was Jack and the Beanstalk. My wife always used to say to me, that if she could have any table it would be the one illustrated in this book, the giants table. So after many years I have built a table inspired by your illustration. I thought maybe you might like to take a look at it.”
Isn’t that delightful? (If it didn’t look like it weighed 18 tons, I’d happily order one.)
THE ROAD GOES EVER ON AND ON
The Map of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is being re-edited at the end of the month. I did new black-and-white illustrations for the booklet, since I couldn’t locate the ones I’d done for the first edition (they were pretty bad; had I located them, I might well have chucked them out and done new drawings anyway).
The Road Goes Ever On And On: The Map of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
by Brian Sibley
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
28 May 2009
AND SPEAKING OF TRIPS…
Flash animation by Fantasy Art Magazine
Left: Event poster.
The poster on the right will be, if I am not mistaken, included in the April issue of Fantasy Art. (“The Dark Tower” is reproduced with the kind permission of HarperCollinsPublishers.