Representing Cooper’s Cultural Landscape: The N. C. Wyeth Illustrations

James J. Donahue (University of Connecticut)

Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 47-50).

Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In his “Author’s Introduction” to The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper states that “[i]t is believed that the scene of this tale, and most of the information necessary to understand its allusions, are rendered sufficiently obvious to the reader in the text itself, or in the accompanying notes” (v). Although the rest of the Introduction addresses the validity of Native American culture and language that his romance employs and addresses, I would here like to take his use of “scene” more literally. As is well-known, Cooper was a friend of many influential painters in his day, including Thomas Cole and Asher Durand. In his study of Cooper and the art of the Erie Canal, James Crawford characterizes the Hudson River School artists — Cole and Durand in particular — as showing “the Indian” as “an integral part of the forest where he lives and survives, while the European needs to alter nature, often shown by the use of cleared fields, railroads or canals, to live in the wild” (34). In other words, Indians are a part of the landscape, where whites are clearly distinct from it. One such example of Cole’s work — “Distant View of Niagara Falls“ — was selected as the cover art for the Signet Classic edition of The Last of the Mohicans. A very similar work, “The Last of the Mohicans“ by Asher Durand, adorns the cover of the Penguin Classics edition. In both works, a single Indian views an enormous panoramic landscape. Cooper’s texts are replete with lush descriptions of natural imagery, and often open with detailed scenes of the landscape. Crawford furthers this notion by suggesting that “[t]he words of Cooper almost challenge an artist to paint this native, wild scene” (34). One artist who answered the challenge to paint the “native” landscape was N. C. Wyeth.

Wyeth is considered by many to be America’s most influential and enduring illustrator. His illustrations for such best-selling adventure classics as Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Westward Ho! guaranteed his fame. (His illustrated edition of The Boy’s King Arthur outsold the illustrated best-selling King Arthur of Howard Pyle — his teacher and mentor — in six fewer printings.) In many ways, however, The Last of the Mohicans can be considered his most significant work. As David Michaelis explains in his recent biography, Wyeth’s “longest sustained period of concentration on a single set of pictures since Treasure Island“ was spent working on The Last of the Mohicans (269). Further, Wyeth earned more for his work on The Last of the Mohicans than he earned on any other edition for Scribner’s Sons; he was paid $3,500 for his work, which represented a 40% increase over his eight previous years of work.

Wyeth’s illustrations for The Last of the Mohicans have also become the standard for representing Cooper’s work. Although Wyeth himself declined many offers to work in Hollywood, silent filmmaker Maurice Tourneur (himself a one-time painter) used Wyeth’s illustrations to guide his work; Wyeth himself commented that the film was faithful “even to the selection of facial characteristics and certain poses and postures I represented” (274). Similarly, former Wyeth student Peter Hurd illustrated an edition of The Last of the Mohicans, and was so overpowered by Wyeth’s influence that he later claimed his illustrations were “right in every detail but the signature!” (328). Finally, Richard Slotkin’s influential study of the American frontier Regeneration Through Violence bears Wyeth’s “The Fight in the Forest” from The Last of the Mohicans on its cover. (Slotkin himself edited The Last of the Mohicans for Penguin.) In both the popular and the critical mind, it would seem, N. C. Wyeth has provided the visual text of Cooper’s famous romance. But before I turn to this visual text, I must admit that the copies I have provided for you all are poor reproductions of Wyeth’s work. If, as Michael Patrick Hearn has claimed, the “reproduction in gift editions did much to minimize the virile strength of his canvases, much of the brilliant color” being “lost in reduction,” then photocopies of these works are doubly inferior.

Known for his lush portrayal of landscape and his vibrant use of colors, Wyeth’s work stands out against that of other illustrators. One such comparison can be made against the work of Edward A. Wilson, who illustrated The Last of the Mohicans for The Heritage Press. Comparing Wyeth’s “Uncas Slays a Deer” to the untitled representation of the preceding scene by Wilson, one immediately notices the differences in color; Wilson employs the same shade of brown to color his scene on the land, the deer, and the Indian in the background, while Wyeth’s use of green and yellow almost makes the scene brighter in his work. Interestingly enough, Wyeth’s use of black to enclose the scene and envelop the back half of the deer as well as the other hunters simultaneously makes his work darker than Wilson’s, which makes no attempt to represent even natural shadowing. Finally, Wyeth’s bright blue beyond the trees adds a vibrancy of color that Wilson’s sparing use of pale blue lacks. I am not arguing that Wyeth’s scene is more realistic; realism is not the point of either Cooper’s romance or Wyeth’s representations. Rather, I am trying to show how Wyeth’s vibrant use of color distinguishes his work from that of other illustrators. Most of Wyeth’s other illustrations for The Last of the Mohicans are similarly vivid, while the rest of Wilson’s illustrations are comparatively bland.

Although all of Wyeth’s illustrations for The Last of the Mohicans depict significant scenes in the novel with respect to the major characters, and those characters are always central in the illustrations, Wyeth treats the background with the same attention to detail with which he depicts the characters. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the afore-mentioned “The Fight in the Forest.” In this scene we are shown Magua and Chingachgook fighting, with Natty and Uncas in the background poised to attack. Though the principal combatants occupy the center of the painting, and are framed by the landscape, the landscape is rendered as distinctly and vibrantly as are the warriors. Wyeth’s attention to detail with respect to the combatants’ clothing — Chingachgook’s tassled tunic and Magua’s beaded belt — is also noticeable in his depiction of the trees and especially their leaves: the trees in the upper left and bottom right flower differently, and each leaf is individually rendered and colored. This is not the case with Wilson’s trees, all of which flower in similarly blurry brownish blobs. Finally, one should notice that it is the trees — and not the combatants — that are foregrounded in Wyeth’s painting. That is, the characters are represented as part of the landscape that envelops them, and not as principals who stand outside or beyond nature. However, upon closer inspection of Wyeth’s illustrations, one will notice that it is only the Indian characters who can be read as part of the landscape; the white characters-with the exception of Bumppo-are distinctly marked against, and thus are separate from, the landscape. This distinction is made primarily by the use of color, lighting, and perspective, clearly seen in “Captives.”

In this representation of Heyward, Cora, Alice, and David being canoed downriver, one notices that in the canoe the four white characters sit clearly in the light. The Indian rowing them downriver is shrouded in the shadow, representing the light/dark binary that is often employed as the basic racial dichotomy. And although the two Indians on the shore are lighted, they are in the background, a part of the landscape. They are included in the landscape by virtue of their coloring; their skin is colored similarly to the ground they tread. In striking contrast to the coloring of the Indians, Heyward, Alice, and Cora are colored not in earth tones but in vibrant primary colors. More specifically, Heyward is dressed in the bright regalia of the English troops and the sisters, sitting closely together, appear to be wearing the red, white, and blue of the American flag. This detail is not in Cooper’s text, but suggests that America will be born from the actions of these two sisters, one of whom dies at the hands of the Indians. Although captives to the Indians in the story, Wyeth here portrays the white characters — specifically the sisters — as central while the Indians are little more than additions to the landscape.

The contrast between the representations of white and Indian characters is perhaps most clearly seen in “The Battle at Glenn’s Falls.” Often used as an example by scholars of Wyeth’s work to demonstrate his ability to capture the “emotional truth” of the characters he paints, this illustration shows Heyward wrestling a Huron early in the text. Both characters are central in the representation, and clearly stand apart from the landscape, which here serves as background. And unlike the detail of the landscape in such illustrations as “Captives” and “The Fight in the Forest,” here the waterfall — which dominates the background — is little more than a white blob. However, this only emphasizes the detail of the characters, which helps to explain its popularity among scholars of Wyeth’s work. The feathers adorning the Huron’s head are clearly frayed, as are the tassles that hang off Heyward’s belt. The Huron’s musculature is shown to be strained, similarly to Heyward’s face. However, this attention to detail for both characters does not detract from the racial implications of Wyeth’s choice of perspective. Heyward’s face is shown to the reader, while the Huron’s is hidden. Though both characters are struggling with each other, the positioning and perspective suggest that Heyward is favored in the fight; Heyward faces both the light as well as the audience, while the Huron is turned away from both, suggesting that as an Indian he is beyond the sympathy of the audience, and possibly that of God, if one reads the light coming down on Heyward as evidence of God’s favor. (And given the repeated appeals to God throughout the text from the white characters, this reading is certainly plausible.)

If we look briefly at Wilson’s illustration of the same scene, we see a similar representation, despite the different angle of perspective. Drawn from an angle that, in Wyeth’s illustration, would have us looking up at Heyward’s back, we instead look into the Huron’s back and Heyward’s face. Further, Heyward appears to be moving forward, while the Huron is being pushed back, showing Heyward’s dominance with respect to motion in the same way that light is employed by Wyeth. Finally, Wilson employs color in the same way that Wyeth does; Heyward is colored with vibrant primaries while the Huron is colored with the same tones as the earth beneath his feet, though it is clear that Wilson’s work is still dull in comparison to Wyeth’s.

The use of earth tones to color the Indians is not employed merely as a counter-coloring to off-set the primary colors used on the white characters. If one looks at both “In the Council Lodge” and “The Termagant” by Wyeth, one can clearly see that dirt-brown is the dominant coloring of the Indians in all of their representations. “In the Council Lodge” shows a group of Indians sitting around the council fire (which, presumably, is the source of light for the scene). The primary, fore-grounded characters are all averting their eyes from the reader; the secondary, background characters may be staring at the reader, but the lack of facial detail makes it difficult to tell. What is not difficult to see is that, but for the attempts at shadowing the background characters, they appear as little more than black-line drawings against the lodge, indistinguishable as individuals against the lodge. The only coloring in the scene comes from the decorative feathered headwear, but even this is deceptive: the predominant color is white, adding a false sense of brightness to the scene.

Similarly, “The Termagant” is predominantly black, and what little color is in the painting adorns Uncas, an Indian who assists the brightly-colored white characters. Further, not only are the Indians colored in dirt-brown, separated from the lodge by little more than shadowing, but the representations of the Hurons are beast-like, the Termagant represented as a crazed savage, and the Indian behind her seems almost pig-like in his facial expression. By contrast, Uncas is large, manly, almost heroic in stature, but like other Indian in earlier paintings, faces away from the audience. Despite his stature, his coloring and positioning still keep him from being represented as favorably as the whites.

I could easily discuss all of Wyeth’s illustrations, and point out where the white characters are brightly colored and all the Indians are treated with earth tones (even in the illustrations where, as we have seen, the whites and Indians are not contrasted). However, this rather striking split with respect to the representations of the characters in The Last of the Mohicans seems to fail with respect to the representation of the central character, Natty Bumppo. Despite the fact that this is the one work in the Leatherstocking series named for a character other then Bumppo (remembering that The Prairie is named not for a character but rather the place to which Bumppo retires at the end of his life), Bumppo is still the central figure, the leader in all endeavors, and the natural philosopher through whom Cooper speaks to his audience. And in these last two roles, Bumppo operates as both a white and an Indian, moving between both worlds with relative ease. However, though Cooper treats Bumppo in a complex manner, taking great pains to employ his “man without a cross” as a bridge between two very different worlds, Wyeth’s representation of him is actually quite simple.

As we have seen in both “Uncas Slays a Deer” and “The Fight in the Forest,” Bumppo is represented no differently from Chingachgook, with whom he stands in the background of both scenes. Like his long-time friend and companion, Bumppo is colored as part of the background. However, despite being a white character, who spends much time discussing how his “white gifts” differ from those gifts of his Indian companions, Bumppo is never represented as part of the foreground. In “David Gamut,” we see both Bumppo and Gamut sitting on a log, employed in pursuits common to their trades: Gamut is singing from his psalm book and Bumppo is cleaning and priming his rifle. Where Gamut is clearly distinguishable because of his blue coat and shiny tuning whistle, Bumppo is almost hidden in plain sight. Not unlike his role in the text itself, Gamut here stands out like a sore thumb, completely out of place in his surroundings. Where Bumppo is performing a useful task for the coming battle, Gamut is — at worst — alerting anyone in the area to their location (Bumppo’s most persistent complaint against the singer). Further, by including only Gamut’s name in the title, Wyeth is here drawing attention away from Bumppo, thus camouflaging him in two respects.

If it weren’t for the feather in Bumppo’s cap and the rifle that extends in front of Gamut’s legs, Bumppo would likely not even be visible, except upon close scrutiny. His coloring is exactly that of the background, as is the shading that draws him into the tree behind him. And like most of the Indian characters, Bumppo is averting his eyes from the reader, intent upon his work in contrast to Gamut’s apparent lack of focus with respect to his situation (even if he is intent upon his own work). In another illustration pairing Bumppo with both white and Indian characters, “The Flight Across the Lake,” Bumppo is seen in the front of the canoe, taking aim against the trailing enemy. And although the angle of perspective keeps any of the characters from facing the reader, the coloring and shadowing tie Bumppo into the Indians rather than the white characters. The brown of his tunic is the same as that which colors the top half of the canoe, while the black that is used to shadow the bottom half of the canoe is also used on the back of the Indian at the other end. Further, the brown that colors Bumppo and the canoe is also used to color the skin of the Indians. By way of contrast, the red jackets of both Heyward and Munro boldly stand out against the dark earth tones, as well as the hazy background. Bumppo may be centrally located in the illustration, but Heyward and Munro are highlighted.

But Wyeth isn’t the only illustrator to paint Bumppo as an Indian. As we can see in his portrait of the scout, Wilson colors Bumppo with the same brown that he uses for the indeterminate background coloring of most of his illustrations. This is the same brown that also colors the Indians (who, in most of Wilson’s sketches, are not clearly identifiable, thus adding to the reading that, for Wilson, the Indians are little more than indeterminate background features). We can see in other of Wilson’s illustrations, such as his portrait of Cora and Alice Munro and the meeting between Heyward and Montcalm, that the white characters are colored more vividly (though far less so than their counterparts in Wyeth’s illustrations). And if we look closely on the right of Wilson’s depiction of Heyward’s and Montcalm’s meeting, we see that while one Indian is colored dull brown, another isn’t colored at all, making him even less significant than the background he stands as a part of.

By taking a closer look at just these few examples from the illustrations of Wyeth and Wilson-admittedly only two of the many who have attempted to portray the characters and scenes of Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans — one can see that the cultural work that Cooper attempts with his texts is only the beginning to a reader’s vision of the cultural clash that is addressed in the Leatherstocking series. Although Cooper takes pains to separate Bumppo from his Indian companions — particularly in the oft-repeated dicta that whites and Indians have different gifts and different paths to the afterlife — I doubt that any reader is capable of reading Bumppo as culturally separate from the Indians he travels with. However, for these same reasons, I doubt that any reader is capable of reading Bumppo as an acculturated Indian. Rather, I would argue that one of the reasons why Cooper’s work continues to delight readers and scholars alike is his ability to render a character who breaks down oversimplified cultural binaries, who can walk in two very different worlds, and be considered a hero in both of them without sacrificing his individuality.

However, as we can see with Wyeth’s illustrations, rendering Bumppo visually is a very different endeavor. At worst, Wyeth’s illustrations reflect a reading of Bumppo that effaces one half of his cultural background, in favor of representing him as an Indian. The result of this reading would be to suggest that those who walk with the savages do so at the expense of their humanity, as Indians in Wyeth’s work are part of the background, part of the dull, dark earth. Or, as Cooper has Tamenund claim at the end of the work, “[t]he palefaces are masters of the earth” (415). On the other hand, Wyeth’s illustrations may represent the continued difficulty that America has with the cultural problematics of white/Indian relations. Personally, I believe that Wyeth’s work reflects the second possibility, if only because he was known to be a sympathetic reader of Cooper’s work, turned his illustrating talents to another of the Leatherstocking tales — The Deerslayer — and used his talents more generally to help millions of America’s readers to rediscover many adventure classics that have served to construct America’s cultural identity. But in working on this paper, I have come to see that illustrations of Cooper’s works are a largely untapped resource of artistic and cultural study, and I hope to have the chance to return to this conference to share my continued investigations on this topic.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. (1826) Illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919 (reprint).
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. (1826) Introduction by Edward Everett Hale. Illustrations by Edward A. Wilson. New York: The Heritage Press, 1932.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. (1826) With an Afterword by James Franklin Beard. New York: Signet Classics, 1962 (reprint).
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. (1826) With an Introduction by Richard Slotkin. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Crawford, James. “James Fenimore Cooper and the Art of the Erie Canal.”, James Fenimore Cooper, His Country and His Art 11 (1997): 32-38.
  • Hearn, Michael Patrick. “’The Sense of Gripping Reality’: N. C. Wyeth as an Illustrator.” American Book Collector 3:6 (Nov.-Dec. 1982): 3-10.
  • Michaelis, David. N. C. Wyeth: A Biography. New York: Perennial, 2003.