I’ve been immersed in reading David McCullough’s biography, “The Wright Brothers.” In particular he has drawn a loving portrait of Wilbur. Will was the elder brother, taller, and a genius. He was careful in everything he did, thorough, calm and sober to a fault.
After much experimentation in America, both at Kitty Hawk, NC, and at their home in Dayton, OH, the brothers tried to sell their third flying machine. The US government spurned their advances twice, but France expressed interest.
On Will’s second trip there, a skeptical French reporter, Francois Peyrey met him. “I felt my doubts fly away one by one . . .Through curls of smoke I examined Wilbur Wright, his thin, serious face, lit by the strangely gentle, intelligent and radiant eyes . . . I had to admit: no, this man is not a bluffer.”France had many pilots who were also experimenting with flight. Wilbur’s eventual demonstration of their flying machine at LeMans in 1908 was a triumph. In his second flight he made two giant figure eights in front of the crowd, landing gracefully exactly at his point of departure. One famous French pioneer gasped, “Well, we are beaten! We just don’t exist!”
A writer for Le Figaro concluded, “He and his brother made the conquest of the sky their existence. They needed this ambition and profound, almost religious, faith in order to deliberately accept their exile to the country of the dunes, far away from all . . . Wilbur is phlegmatic but only in appearance. He is driven by a will of iron which animates him and drives him in his work.”
Wilbur was a man of science and action, but possessed by a broad intellectual and artistic curiosity. While in Paris he visited the Louvre 15 or more times, and filled pages with descriptions of the paintings he saw in his letters home. He preferred the Rembrandts, Holbeins and Van Dycks “as a whole” better than the Rubenses, Titians, Raphaels and Murillos. I looked up which painting of those masters are at the Louvre to grasp what it was he liked about them.
There are many late Rembrandt self portraits, brooding, isolated, and monochromatic. The “Philosopher in Meditation,” 1632, is also there, and must have appealed to Will. The Holbeins include “Erasmus,” the portrait of the greatest scholar of the Renaissance, and a Humanist. It was he who wrote, “When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” It sounds like Ben Franklin (or Wilbur Wright for that matter), but those were the words of Erasmus, born in 1469. His masterful portrait of Nikolaus Kratzer is also there.
Anthony Van Dyke was a student of Rubens, and what attracted Wilbur is not immediately clear to me. He was a Flemish Baroque painter mostly of court portraits. Yet it was Anthony Van Dyke he liked best of all. I’d have to read Wilburs letters to learn why exactly.
Among the 19th Century French masters he loved Corot, especially his treatment of the sky. That is easy to understand.
By the way, he always came to his own conclusions about art. For example, he was critical of Notre Dame, finding the nave too narrow, the pillars too heavy and close together and the interior far too dark. But he praised the cathedral at Le Mans, although the only part of the church service he said he could understand was the collection!
Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation, 1632
Rembrandt, Portrait of the Artist at his Easel, 1660, age 54
Hans Holbein, Erasmus, 1523
Hans Holbein, Nikolaus Kratzer, 1528
Corot, Chartres, 1830. Figure in foreground added 1872
Corot, Florence, the Boboli Gardens, 1834-35
Anthony Van Dyke, Charles I at the Hunt