Andrew Wyeth

Further to our recent post on N.C. Wyeth by our good friend Alan Mason, we are now very pleased to post another article by Alan on Wyeth’s son Andrew. – Deskarati –

“The institutional art world in Europe and America seemed totally unable to accept the validity of representational art of any kind, throughout the 20th century and its treatment of Andrew Wyeth is of a piece with its disdain for a host of other representational artists.” – Alan Mason

Andrew Newell Wyeth (July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009) was a visual artist, primarily a realist painter, working predominantly in a “regionalist style”. He was one of the best-known US artists of the 20th century.

Wyeth’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine. One of the most well-known images in 20th-century American art is his painting, Christina’s World, currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Childhood

Andrew Wyeth was the youngest of the five children of illustrator and artist N C Wyeth, born July 12, 1917. N.C. was an attentive father, fostering each of the children’s interests and talents. Andrew was home-tutored because of his frail health. Like his father, the young Wyeth read and appreciated the poetry of Robert Frost and writings of Henry Thoreau and studied their relationships with nature.

Music and movies also heightened his artistic sensitivity.
One major influence, discussed at length by Wyeth himself was King Vidor’s “The Big Parade”. He claims to have seen the film which depicted family dynamics

He claims to have seen the film which depicted family dynamics similar to his own, “a hundred-and-eighty-times” and believes it had the greatest influence on his work. The film’s director Vidor later made a documentary, Metaphor where he and Wyeth discuss the influence of the film on his paintings, including Winter 1946, Snow Flurries, Portrait of Ralph Kline and Afternoon Flight of a Boy up a Tree.

“Winter 1946” Andrew Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth’s guidance

Wyeth’s father was the only teacher that he had. Due to being schooled at home, he led both a sheltered life and one that was “obsessively focussed”. Wyeth recalled of that time: “Pa kept me almost in a jail, just kept me to himself in my own world, and he wouldn’t let anyone in on it. I was almost made to stay in Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest with Maid Marion and the rebels.”

Wyeth started drawing at a young age, and he was a draftsman before he could read.
By the time he was a teenager, his father brought him into his studio for the only art lessons he ever had. N.C. inspired his son’s love of rural landscapes, sense of romance and artistic traditions.
Although creating illustrations was not a passion he wished to pursue, Wyeth produced illustrations under his father’s name while in his teens.

With his father’s guidance, he mastered figure study and watercolor, and later learned egg tempera technique. He studied art history on his own, admiring many masters of the Renaissance and American painting, especially that of Winslow Homer. N.C. also fostered in his son an inner self-confidence to follow his own talents without thought of how the work is received. N.C. wrote in a letter to Wyeth in 1944:

“The great men [Thoreau, Goethe, Emerson, Tolstoy] forever radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of an artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant. Let the motive for action be in the action itself and not in the event. I know from my own experience that when I create with any degree of strength and beauty I have no thought of consequences. Anyone who creates for effect — to score a hit — does not know what he is missing!”

In the same letter N.C. correlates being a great man with being a great painter: To be a great artist, he described, requires emotional depth, an openness, to look beyond self to the subject, and passion. A great painting then is one that enriches and broadens one’s perspective.

In October 1945, his father and his three-year-old nephew, Newell Convers Wyeth II were killed when their car stalled on railroad tracks near their home and was struck by a train. Wyeth referred to his father’s death as a formative emotional event in his artistic career, in addition to being a personal tragedy. Shortly afterwards, Wyeth’s art consolidated into his mature and enduring style.

Marriage and issue

In 1940, Wyeth married Betsy James, who had an influence with Andrew as strong as that with his father. She played an important role managing his career. She was once quoted as saying “I am a director and I had the greatest actor in the world.” Christina Olson, who would become the model for the iconic Christina’s World, met Wyeth through an introduction by Betsy.

Their first child Nicholas was born in 1943, followed by James (“Jamie”) three years later. Wyeth painted portraits of both children. His son, Jamie Wyeth followed his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, becoming the third generation of Wyeth artists.

Death

On January 16, 2009, Andrew Wyeth died in his sleep at his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, after a brief illness. He was 91 years old.

Work

In 1937, at age twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of watercolors at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City. The entire inventory of paintings sold out, and his life path seemed certain. His style was different from his father’s: more spare, “drier,” and more limited in color range. He stated his belief that “…the great danger of the Pyle School is picture-making.”
He did some book illustrations in his early career, but not to the extent that N.C. Wyeth did.

Wyeth was a visual artist, primarily classified as a realist painter, like Winslow Homer or Eakins. In a “Life Magazine” article in 1965, Wyeth said that although he was thought of as a realist, he thought of himself as an abstractionist: “My people, my objects breathe in a different way: there’s another core — an excitement that’s definitely abstract. My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing — if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end.”

He worked predominantly in a regionalist style. In his art, Wyeth’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine shown below.

Dividing his time between Pennsylvania and Maine, Wyeth maintained a realist painting style for over fifty years. He gravitated to several identifiable landscape subjects and models. His solitary walks were the primary means of inspiration for his landscapes. He developed an extraordinary intimacy with the land and sea and strove for a spiritual understanding based on history and unspoken emotion.

He typically created dozens of studies on a subject in pencil or loosely brushed watercolor before executing a finished painting, either in watercolor, drybrush, (a watercolor style in which the water is squeezed from the brush), or egg tempera.

Christina Olson

It was at the Olson farm in Cushing, Maine that he painted “Christina’s World” (1948). Perhaps his most famous image, it depicts his neighbor, Christina Olson, sprawled on a dry field facing her house in the distance. Wyeth was quite inspired by his neighbor, who, because of an unknown illness resulting in her inability to walk, spent much time on the property surrounding her house.

Christina’s World, 1948
Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Also in 1948, he began painting Anna and Karl Kuerner, his neighbors in Chadds Ford. Like the Olsons, the Kuerners and their farm were one of Wyeth’s most important. subjects for nearly 30 years. Wyeth stated about the Kuerner Farm, “I didn’t think it a picturesque place. It just excited me, purely abstractly and purely emotionally.

The Olson house has been preserved, renovated to match its appearance in Christina’s World. It is open to the public as a part of the Farnsworth Art Museum. The Kuerners’ farm is available to tour through the Brandywine River Museum, as is the N.C.Wyeth House and Studio.

Helga paintings

In 1986, extensive coverage was given to the revelation of a series of 247 studies of Wyeth’s neighbor, the Prussian-born Helga Testorf. Wyeth painted her over the period 1971–85 without the knowledge of either Wyeth’s wife or John Testorf, Helga’s husband.

Andrew Wyeth, Braids, 1979. Portrait of Helga Testorf

The paintings were stored at the home of his student, neighbor and good friend, Frolic Weymouth. Helga is a musician, baker, and friend of the Wyeths. She met Wyeth when she was attending to Karl Kuerner. She had never modeled before, but quickly became comfortable with the long periods of posing, during which he observed and painted her in intimate detail.

The Helga pictures are not an obvious psychological study of the subject, but more an extensive study of her physical landscape set within Wyeth’s customary landscapes. She is nearly always unsmiling and passive; yet, within those deliberate limitations, Wyeth manages to convey subtle qualities of character and mood, as he does in many of his best portraits. This extensive study of one subject studied in differing contexts and emotional states is unique in American art, but more commonplace in European masters. For example, Lizzie Siddell and the Pre-Raphaelites, or the Rembrandt self-portraits.

“Helga” Andrew Wyeth

In 1986, millionaire Leonard Andrews (1925–2009), purchased almost the entire collection, preserving it intact. Wyeth had already given a few Helga paintings to friends, including the famous Lovers, which had been given as a gift to Wyeth’s wife.

The works were exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in 1987 and in a coast-to-coast tour.

Other main works

  • Inspired by Winslow Homer’s watercolors, Wyeth painted an impressionistic watercolor, Coot Hunter, (1933), shown below, in which he experimented with the “fleeting effects of light and movement”.
  • Public Sale, (1943), is one of his first tempera paintings.
  • After N.C. Wyeth’s death, his work began to take on a melancholic tone. He painted Winter 1946 of a boy, rolling down a hill, his hand reaching out. The location of the work was the other side of the hill where his father died and represented the unsettling, free-falling sense of loss.
  • “Coot Hunter” Andrew Wyeth

  • Brown Swiss, (1957) shown below, is one of many paintings from the 1950s to the 1970s of Karl and Anna Kuerlner’s farm in Chadd’s Ford. The painting is named after the Brown Swiss cows in the picture.
  • In 1958, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth purchased and restored “The Mill,” a group of 18th-century buildings that appeared often in his work, including Night Sleeper (1979).
  • Garret Room, (1962) was begun in watercolor and finished with the drybrush technique.
  • Wyeth began portraits in the 1960s, like Up in the Studio (1965) made with drybrush of his sister Carolyn.
  • In works such as The Patriot, a portrait of Ralph Cline, Wyeth looked beyond the surface to understand who he was painting. Cline was an interesting gentleman 71 years of age, of Native American heritage and Maine humor. He wore a big hat and overalls and chewed tobacco. It was through painting him, though, that Wyeth understood that, beneath his humor and hard countenance, Cline was a warm-hearted veteran of great dignity and intellect.
  • When Christina Olsen died in the winter of 1969, Wyeth refocused his artistic attention upon Siri Erickson, capturing her naked innocence in Indian Summer (1970). It was a prelude to the Helga paintings.
  • Ring Road made in 1985 reflects the earth tones that Wyeth used throughout his career.

“Brown Swiss” Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth, Long Limb, Tempera (1999)

Andrew Wyeth, Overflow, (1978) one of the “Helga pictures”

Andrew Wyeth, Late Fall, watercolor on paper, 67.3cm × 47cm, 1981

Critical reaction

Wyeth’s art has long been controversial. He developed technically beautiful works, had a large following and developed a considerable fortune as a result. Yet there has been conflicting views of his work by critics, curators and historians about the importance of his work. Art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked in 1977 to identify the “most overrated and the least overrated” artist in the 20th century. He provided one name for both categories: Andrew Wyeth.

Many art critics have evaluated his work unfavorably. Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The Village Voice, derided his paintings as “Formulaic stuff, not very effective even as illustrational ‘realism.’ ” Some found Wyeth’s art of rural subject matter tired and oversweet.

Bo Bartlett, a close friend and student of Wyeth, commented on his teacher’s view of this criticism during an interview in 2008: “People only make you swerve. I won’t show anybody anything I’m working on. If they hate it, it’s a bad thing, and if they like it, it’s a bad thing. An artist has to be ingrown to be any good.”

N.C. advised Wyeth to work from one’s own perspective and imagination; to work for “effect” means the artist is not fully exploring their artistic abilities and as a result the artist will not realize their potential.

Wyeth created work in sharp contrast to abstraction which gained currency in American art and critical thinking in the middle of the 20th century. The institutional art world in Europe and America seemed totally unable to accept the validity of representational art of any kind, throughout the 20th century and its treatment of Andrew Wyeth is of a piece with its disdain for a host of other representational artists (For example, Edward Hopper in the USA, or David Shepherd, and Jack Vettriano in the UK).

Public Reaction to Andrew Wyeth’s Work

However, this has not prevented the American public from taking Wyeth, and Hopper to their hearts, in much the same way as the British public have shown their approval of Shepherd, and Vettriano. Museum exhibitions of Wyeth’s paintings have set attendance records.

Admirers of Wyeth’s art believe that his paintings, in addition to their pictorial formal beauty, contain strong emotional currents, symbolic content, and underlying abstraction. Most observers of his art agree that he is skilled at handling the media of egg tempera (which uses egg yolk as its medium) and watercolor. Wyeth avoided using traditional oil paints.

His use of light and shadow let the subjects illuminate the canvas. His paintings and titles suggest sound, as is implied in many paintings, including Distant Thunder (1961) and Spring Fed (1967). Christina’s World became an iconic image, a status unmet to even the best paintings, “that registers as an emotional and cultural reference point in the minds of millions.”

(Adapted, added to, and much reduced from the excellent wikipedia article, to which readers are urged to go for further information.)

Alan Mason, August 2011

This entry was posted in Alan Mason, Arts. Bookmark the permalink.