This painting, by the American artist N.C. Wyeth, was completed in 1926 and used as the dust cover for the book The Black Swan, by Rafael Sabitini, in 1932.

Painting by N.C. Wyeth, courtesy National Geographic Society

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  • N.C. Wyeth was one of the most important American illustrators and painters of the early 20th century. Many of Wyeth's illustrations are of pirates and piracy. In fact, one of his most famous works is his series of illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate tale, Treasure Island.

    This painting, "The Duel on the Beach," does not illustrate a scene from Treasure Island. Its subject matter is purely imaginative. Carl Fisher, an American entrepreneur who made his fortune in the automobile and real-estate industries, commissioned Wyeth to paint a pirate-themed work of art in the early 1920s, and "The Duel on the Beach" is the result.

    At least two of Wyeth and Fisher's friends appear in the painting, between the dueling pirates. The man in the yellow hat is James Allison, Fisher's fellow automobile entrepreneur and a co-founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The grinning man next to Allison is John Oliver La Gorce, an explorer and editor at the National Geographic Society.

    La Gorce's appearance in "The Duel on the Beach" is not the only connection between Wyeth and National Geographic. In 1927, Wyeth completed a series of five enormous murals, "The Romance of Discovery," for the society's library. The murals are still on display at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. Wyeth also ultimately gave La Gorce "The Duel on the Beach", and La Gorce donated it to the society.

    1. "The Duel on the Beach" depicts pirates, yet no actual piracy is shown. What clues hint that at least some of the men in the painting may be pirates?

      The artist, N.C. Wyeth, has painted the men with many symbols of piracy: large hoop earrings, bandanas tied tightly around their heads, loose-fitting shirts open to the chest, knives tucked in their belts.

    2. Wyeth painted "The Duel on the Beach" in New England during the 1920s, but the action seemingly takes place in the Caribbean of the 1600s or 1700s. What things do you think Wyeth had to research before starting the painting?

      Wyeth probably had to look up the history of piracy in the region, including the style of clothing pirates wore and the types of weapons they used. He also had to understand the climate, landscape, and vegetation of the area.

    3. Individual conflict is common throughout history. How would you depict a personal conflict in the time period you're studying?

      Answers will vary! For example, American history includes conflicts between nomadic and agricultural tribes, Aztecs and conquistadors, Minutemen and Tories, Union and Confederate troops, and Native Americans and pioneers.

    4. Wyeth included portraits of some of his friends in this historic scene. If you were painting your friends, in what time period would you paint them?

      Answers will vary! Think about the same historic issues Wyeth did: clothes, tools, climate. You may also want to think about different aspects of the time period, and what social position you may want your friends to represent. Monarch or servant? Spiritual leader or sacrificial victim? Artist or worker? Pirate or military leader?

    • N.C. Wyeth came from an artistic family. His mother, Hattie, knew Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
    • Besides Treasure Island, Wyeth illustrated many classic adventure storiesKidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans, King Arthur, The Mysterious Island, and The Yearling are just a few.
    • N.C. Wyeth was a diverse artist. He is most famous for book and magazine illustrations, but he was also an accomplished painter and muralist, as well as a designer of posters, advertisements, and calendars.
    • The Wyeth family includes several important American artists, including N.C. Wyeth's son Andrew Wyeth and Andrew's son Jamie Wyeth.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    commission Verb

    to formally order or give permission to work.

    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    entrepreneur Noun

    person who starts and manages a business.

    explorer Noun

    person who studies unknown areas.

    headquarters Noun

    place where an organization or project is chiefly located.

    illustrator Noun

    person who draws, paints, or designs a visual complement to a piece of writing.

    mural Noun

    artwork painted directly on a wall.

    National Geographic Society Noun

    (1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

    N.C. Wyeth Noun

    (Newell Converse Wyeth, 1882-1945) American painter and illustrator.

    pirate Noun

    thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.

    Robert Louis Stevenson Noun

    (1850-1894) Scottish writer and poet.