Summary of Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth, one of America's best-known Realist painters of the 20th century, created canvases imbued with the mysteriousness of the real world, thus challenging traditional notions of reality. Wyeth rendered scenes of his everyday life in rural Pennsylvania and Maine, landscapes, and portraits with exacting detail, working primarily in watercolor and tempera instead of the more typical oil or acrylic. While famous for his realist depictions, Wyeth's compositions often carry a sense of the uncanny, which led some critics to call him a Magic Realist. While much beloved by a popular audience and, for a time, the critical establishment, Wyeth's reputation declined in the 1960s, as some felt his paintings did not keep up with the times and were not relevant to a contemporary culture that was experiencing various upheavals. Wyeth refused to change his style and continued painting the rural life he had always known. Later still, Wyeth became an American legend, and a touchstone for younger painters who have returned to realism to probe various issues confronting today's society.
- Wyeth's Realism, with its meticulous attention to detail, was not purely documentary. In particular, his compositions often employed skewed vantage points and perspectives, making his subjects seem a little uncanny, or strange. The strange perspective coupled with painstakingly controlled brushstrokes, which are the opposite of expressionistic, create a type of Realism that some critics referred to as Magic Realism. Wyeth's Magic Realism does not traffic in fantastical subjects but instead reveals the material world to be permeated with mystery and uncertainty.
- Wyeth's preferred media - watercolor and egg tempera - were unusual choices for a modern artist, but his innovative use of a dry brush technique in both media allowed him to build up complex surfaces on the canvas that he likened to weaving. These "woven" surfaces create the effect of a stillness, an almost surreal atmosphere, for his subjects.
- Despite living a rather rural and secluded life in Pennsylvania and Maine, Wyeth kept tabs on the contemporary art world, and while some critics dismissed his work as a sentimental depiction of rural life, many of Wyeth's paintings could be considered quite radical in their exploration of the innate sexuality of his subjects, including the young Siri Erickson, the older Helga Testorf, and even his young neighbor Eric Standard, all of whom he painted unabashedly nude.
Important Art by Andrew Wyeth
Wyeth presents the viewer with a dead crow, stiffened from rigor mortis and frozen in the wintery landscape. The viewer doesn't look down on the crow but instead sees it as if his or her face were pressed to the ground, not far from the creature. The fields surrounding Wyeth's neighbor's house extend well into the distance, and a farm house and trees dot the horizon. The perspectival effect accords the small animal an outsized prominence to its setting, thus suggesting the gravity and importance of its death.
Having come across the dead bird during a walk, Wyeth brought the crow back to his studio to study and paint it, so multiple sketches for this painting exist. Wyeth remembered, "This crow in one of Karl's fields symbolized the nature and intimacy of the Pennsylvania landscape. The blue-black of the feathers helped me break free of 'Impressionism.'" The exquisite details that Wyeth was able to capture with tempera paint, an unusual choice of medium in modern times, underscore the degree to which Wyeth broke from the then contemporary trends of abstraction.
Painted in the midst of World War II, some have drawn parallels between the painting and the photographs of the dead and wounded in the battlefields of Europe. Additionally, Wyeth was fascinated with American movies, particularly early, silent war films made after World War I and was inspired by the filmic framing of battle scenes. Wyeth, though, insisted his work had nothing to do with photography, and upon closer inspection one sees that the objects in the farthest background are painted as delicately and intricately as the crow. In doing so, Wyeth creates a depiction of space that neither humans or cameras could capture. From an early date, Wyeth's realism always aimed to capture, in his words "what lurks close down at the surface."
Tempera on composition board - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
In Winter 1946, we see a young man running fast and recklessly down a hill. The muted colors evoke a cold winter scene, with a sliver of unmelted snow in the upper left of the composition. Bundled in warm clothing, the viewer is left wondering who this boy is and his destination.
Wyeth created this painting after the horrific death of his father N.C. It was on Kuerner's Hill in Chadds Ford that his father was hit by a passing train. The engine stalled in N.C.'s car, and he and his young grandson were not able to move nor get the conductor to stop in time. His neighbor Karl Kuerner became a surrogate father figure to the artist, and the farm and the hill became a major source of inspiration for Wyeth's paintings over the next thirty years.
Given the biographical context, one can now imagine the young man as Wyeth himself, running aimlessly and distractedly while trying to make sense of his father's death. Wyeth later said he lamented the fact that he was never able to paint a portrait of his father but that "the hill finally became a portrait of him."
Tempera on board - North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC
With her back to the viewer, Wyeth's subject Anna Christina Olson stares into the distance, looking out at her farmhouse in Cushing, Maine. Suffering from a degenerative muscular disease, Christina was unable to walk. Wyeth said that she was "limited physically but by no means spiritually" and that "the challenge was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless." Her gaunt arms and legs and her slight frame make the figure seem vulnerable and isolated in the expansive field, and the viewer is put in an ambiguous position, looking at her from behind. The scene contains a sense of vulnerability, contributing to a certain forboding feeling.
To say this is a true portrait of Christina Olson, though, would be misleading. While the pink dress and slim limbs belong to the then 55-year-old Olson, Wyeth used his young wife Betsy as the actual model here, thus fusing Christina's aging and abnormal body with that of a healthy, young one. Even though Wyeth wanted to depict Olson's plight, it can be interpreted that Wyeth made the subject an "Everywoman".
Christina's World presents an intriguing, open-ended narrative that appeals to the imagination. Who is Christina? Why is she in a field? Is that her house? Why does she seem to be crawling? While a seemingly straightforward painting, Christina's World is, in fact, characteristic of Wyeth's version of Magic Realism, which is not fantastical or overtly surrealistic but more subtle and unsettling in its hyper-realism. As one curator explained, Wyeth's paintings "are filled with hidden metaphors that explore common themes of memory, nostalgia and loss." And the artist himself said, "Magic! It's what makes things sublime. It's the difference between a picture that is profound art and just a painting of an object."
The profundity that Wyeth was able to capture in this painting makes it one of the most well-known and admired pieces that Wyeth ever produced; however, it was not his personal favorite. Wyeth felt that the painting would have been more successful without the figure in the field. He remarked to an interviewer, "When I was painting Christina's World I would sit there by the hours working on the grass, and I began to feel I was really out in the field. I got lost in the texture of the thing. I remember going down into the field and grabbing up a section of earth and setting it on the base of my easel. It wasn't a painting I was working on. I was actually working on the ground itself."
Tempera on panel - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In this unusual composition, Wyeth painted a person walking across an autumnal hill, but we only see the person from the knees down, wearing old, sturdy, brown boots and the hem of his coat blowing in the breeze. As is typical for Wyeth, the grass and the weeds that comprise the field are rendered with the utmost detail and clarity with his dry brush technique. He often metaphorically described tempera paint as being like the earth, and he was deeply impressed by Albrecht Dürer's studies of nature and particularly tufts of grass. The horizon line is unusually high, and we see only a sliver of well-lit sky in the upper right corner.
The main focal point of the painting - the brown boots - show much wear, suggesting a long history. The boots originally belonged to Howard Pyle, the former art teacher of Wyeth's father. Betsy acquired the boots from another of Pyle's students and gave them to her husband as a Christmas gift in 1950. At the time, Wyeth was recovering from a major operation in which he had part of a lung removed. He found that the shoes fit and wore them to walk around the fields of Kuerner's farm as he recuperated from the surgery. Wearing the former teacher's shoes must have also reminded him of his childhood when he would dress up in historical costumes his father kept in his studio. Some critics have found the overt autobiographical symbolism of the painting overworked and clichéd, but the composition is still striking.
Tempera on board - Private Collection
In Master Bedroom, Wyeth presents the family dog, Rattler, asleep, curled up and snuggled into the pillows of a four poster bed. Wyeth's granddaughter, Victoria, said in an interview that the artist had "come home tired one evening, wanting to take a nap, only to find Rattler had got there first." She went on to quote Wyeth, "You know, dogs are the damnedest thing. They just take over the house." While the title suggests we are in the bedroom of the home's owner, it is also a sly nod to the real master of the house - the dog.
Wyeth perfectly captures the mundane nature of the scene. The simple white bedspread, seemingly worn in a few spots, covers the bed and pillows. The room is unadorned; no pictures hang on the walls, but a small bowl sits on the window sill. The walls, painted rather gesturally, suggest old, discolored plaster. Through the window, we see a side of the house and a few branches of a tree. The light - a low, afternoon light - shines through window onto the end of the bed, not disturbing the sleeping dog.
Evidently, Wyeth's wife did not think much of the picture and suggested he put it on the "giveaway pile." Betsy would be surprised to learn that Master Bedroom became one of Wyeth's most popular paintings.
Watercolor on paper - Private Collection
In this controversial painting, Barracoon, a nude black woman reclines on a bed covered in white linens with her back turned toward the viewer. Her arms, bent at the elbows, rest in front of her, and her hands lie above her head. The subject is Wyeth's take on the traditional odalisque. As painted by Titian or Manet, the nude female becomes an object of sexual desire. One also thinks of Paul Gauguin's paintings of young, dark-skinned Tahitian women lying on divans in exoticized poses. While Wyeth's composition also carries a sexualized tension, instead of a lush, exotic setting, Wyeth placed the figure in a non-descript bedroom, not unlike the one in Master Bedroom, and painted the walls in gestural strokes and scratched its surface, leaving a mostly abstract background. In some ways this abstract setting, because there are no other distractions, intensifies one's voyeuristic gaze on the nude female body.
The title of the painting refers to an enclosed, locked space where slaves and criminals were held. The reference to slavery coupled with the tradition of the odalisque creates an ambiguous - and fraught - mood and calls into question the artist's intentions. Further complicating the issue is that Wyeth's subject was not the family's long-serving maid Betty Hammond, as he claimed for many years, but Helga Testorf, the white German woman he painted secretly for several years. Helga posed for the painting, but he changed her hair and darkened her skin to hide her identity from his wife, to whom he gave the painting as a birthday present.
Wyeth produced several paintings of African American subjects with whom he had developed friendships over the years, and while it is undeniable that Wyeth had a yearning to know and understand his models in an honest and compassionate way, these paintings are not without controversy, as they bring to the fore the power imbalance between a white artist and a black sitter with the legacy of America's racial history. The contemporary artist Hank Willis Thomas suggested that Wyeth "exploited, but not maliciously, as part of his brand.. It's not about him being a bad guy. But it's the question for any artist: When are you not exploiting someone?"
In Overflow, the model Helga Testorf lies on her side, partially covered with a thin, white sheet, revealing her breasts and the top of her pubic area. Her braided pigtails fall over her breast and left arm while her right arm lies across her head and comes to rest on the pillow above her. Her eyes closed, she appears to be almost smiling, a rare occurrence in the Helga paintings. The evening moonlight gently falls on her body from behind, and warm summer air seems to come through the open window. The voyeuristic perspective suggests the passionate gaze of the artist. The title may refer to the overflow of light on the model or the artist's lustful desires to be with her.
Ever since their debut in 1987, the Helga paintings have sparked much speculation about the nature of Wyeth's relationship with his model. Wyeth always brushed aside rumors of an affair, but he said of these paintings, "The difference between me and a lot of painters is that I have to have a personal contact with my models. I don't mean a sexual love, I mean real love. Many artists tell me they don't even recall the names of their models. I have to fall in love with mine - hell, I do much the same with a tree or a dog. I have to become enamored. Smitten. That's what happened when I saw Helga walking up the Kuerner's lane. She was this amazing, crushing blonde." For her part, Helga simply explained that "the nude is the most holy thing. If you can get next to it, it is a divine spirit. It's soul. He paints the soul." Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, the two certainly held each other in great esteem.
Dry brush on paper - Private Collection
Biography of Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Newell Wyeth was born on July 12, 1917, in rural Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest son of Caroline Borkius Wyeth and the renowned artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth. Continuing in the creative footsteps of their father, four of the five Wyeth children became artists. As a young child, Wyeth was prone to illness, and he contracted whooping cough. Concerned for his fragile health, his parents decided to school him at home. When Wyeth was three, the family began spending summers in Maine, where they enjoyed nature and relished the intellectual and social stimulation of their visiting guests. Exhibiting artistic promise at an early age, Andrew learned to draw before he could read, and eventually he assisted in creating his father's illustrations.
Largely confined because of his frail constitution, Wyeth read and studied the poetry of Robert Frost and the writings of Henry David Thoreau, cultivating a deep appreciation for nature. He also had a vivid imagination and enjoyed dressing up and building narratives from the props and costumes his father used for his illustrations. He became fascinated with death and the macabre in his youth and was enthusiastic about theater, especially Shakespeare. As a boy, he spent a year building a maquette theater, equipped with costumed dolls, to stage Arthur Conan Doyle's play The White Company.
Early Training and Work
Wyeth received formal and rigorous art training from his father, a stickler for perfection. In the spring of 1933, he had his first exhibition at the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts in Wilmington, DE. He was uninterested in working with oils and instead chose watercolor as his preferred medium, combining precise details with Impressionist light and movement.
These early works were brought to the attention of Robert Macbeth, a prominent New York City art dealer, who organized Wyeth's first solo exhibition at his gallery in 1937. After two days, all of the paintings had been sold. At the young age of 20, Wyeth was gaining more recognition than many other practicing artists of his time. He continued experimenting with watercolors and began using a dry brush technique in which he squeezed most of the moisture and pigment out of the brush before applying it to the paper. Building up layers in this way, he was able to create richly complex effects. In the late 1930s, his sister's husband, Peter Hurd introduced Wyeth to egg tempera that he would use and master throughout his long career. Wyeth enjoyed studying art history and was very fond of the Italian Renaissance, Greek Antiquities, the Rococo, and the Romantics. Though he was greatly influenced by other American painters, in particular, Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, Wyeth maintained his own distinct style of realism.
Wyeth met his wife Betsy Merle James in the summer of 1939 in Maine. His father was suspicious of his son marrying, as he feared that Betsy would control his art practice and life. Other tensions arose between father and son, as N.C. became competitive and slightly jealous of the recognition Andrew was receiving for his paintings and began questioning his own illustration career, regretting that he never became a fine artist. Despite awkward family tensions, Andrew's love and admiration for his father never wavered, and he married Betsy in May 1940. With N.C. looming over the festivities with a scowl, the wedding day was somewhat lacking in affection. According to Betsy, not wanting to displease his father, Wyeth remained aloof and distant throughout the day. N.C.'s predictions, however, were accurate; Betsy did take on the roles of business manager and curator for her husband. She was also responsible for maintaining their Maine and Pennsylvania homesteads and raising their two sons, Nicholas (b. 1943), and James Browning (Jamie, b. 1946).
Even with newborn children in the picture, Wyeth kept secluded in his studio, painting as much as he could. Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller included Wyeth's egg tempera works in her exhibition, Americans 1943: American Realists and Magic Realists. Subsequently, he was labeled a Magic Realist, as his depictions of mundane rural life and landscapes were uniquely mesmerizing and mysterious. Since Wyeth had a passion for theatrical, grotesque, and absurd subject matter, his work became more steeped in death and darkness. The symbolism found in his paintings were interpreted as reactions to current events in his own personal life and in the world at large. While his paintings did maintain a sense of mystery and subtle symbolism, Wyeth was insistent on capturing the essence of the landscape as faithfully as possible. To this end, he gathered natural materials - chunks of hay, gourds, and branches - from his surroundings in Chadds Ford and kept them next to his easel in the studio for further observation.
In 1945, Wyeth's father was killed by a passing train while crossing tracks near his home. The site of the accident, Kuerner's Hill, would become a recurring setting of Andrew's paintings, beginning with Winter 1946. After the horrific loss, Wyeth's depictions of landscapes became more somber in color and mood, and the figures displayed more emotion than ever before. Wyeth felt that his beloved father's passing allowed him to finally feel. He began making portraits of people with whom he had developed relationships, although one of his greatest regrets was not having the opportunity to paint a portrait of his father.
One of his frequent and most famous portrait subjects was Anna Christina Olson (1893 - 1968), a neighbor in Cushing, Maine, who he met through his wife in 1939. Olson suffered from polio, a degenerative muscle disorder, leaving her legs immobile. Choosing not to use a wheelchair, she was often seen crawling on the ground to get from one place to another. Wyeth greatly admired her ferocious independence and strength, and she became the inspiration for his most famous painting, Christina's World (1948), which the Museum of Modern Art acquired soon after it was painted.
While coming to grips with the brutal death and destruction of the Second World War, Wyeth continued to paint imagery from his insular world. Steeped in symbolism, a painting of a field or a pumpkin patch could hold numerous stories and meanings that went well beyond their realistic depiction. By the mid-1950s, Wyeth had earned much acclaim from museums, institutions, and popular magazines such as Time, even earning an honorary doctorate from Harvard University in 1956. With the rise of Pop Art, Minimalism, and institutional critiques, however, he was seen by many critics as retrograde and out of touch with contemporary culture. As art historian David Cateforis explains, Wyeth's "harshest critics...called him a reactionary purveyor of easily consumed, stickily sentimental illustrations of a rural past that never existed."
While some derided his sentimentality, Wyeth defied such criticism by daringly exploring the sexuality of his subjects. After Christina Olson died in 1968, Wyeth turned to a new model, the young teenager, Siri Erickson, one of his neighbours in Maine. For ten years he painted her clothed and unclothed, and some, including his wife, began to question the nature of his relationship with the young girl. In the late 1970s, he also painted an idealized, homoerotic nude portrait of his neighbour Eric Standard as if he were Botticelli's Venus emerging out of the field, which became an icon among gay men in the 1980s when it was first shown.
But it was in 1986 when Wyeth's pursuit of his subject's sexuality caused sensational headlines when it was revealed that he had secretly painted over 240 paintings and sketches of Helga Testorf between 1971 and 1985. Testorf was the nurse to Wyeth's Chadds Ford neighbour Karl Kuerner, who had become terminally ill. Wyeth was instantly attracted to the married Testorf and felt the need to paint her repeatedly and in secret. A close friendship developed between the two, and despite the many rumors, they claimed to have never had an affair. Wyeth spoke about the series, saying, "It was a love affair with the burning love that I've always had toward the things I paint."
Though they were supposed to be kept private until after Helga's death, the collection was purchased in 1986 by a wealthy publisher named Leonard E.B. Andrews for $6 million and exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1987 and seen in the pages of Time and Newsweek. While many criticized the voyeuristic aspect of the exhibition as crass sensationalism, most of the critics panned the painting, arguing that most of them were uninspired, technically flawed, and simply uninteresting. Some likened them, unfavorably, to the illustrations of Wyeth's father. A couple of years later, Andrews sold the cache of paintings and drawings to a Japanese collector for an incredible sum, which led some to speculate that he and Wyeth concocted the entire sensational affair.
Despite the news splash of the Helga paintings Wyeth's art practice remained incredibly private. He did not allow people to watch him creating his work. At one point in an interview he said that "it would be like somebody watching you have sex - painting is that personal to me.''
In an interview in 1990, Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum, said that Wyeth, "[had] changed in one significant way, he [was] now bathing his paintings with real light, what the French would call en plein air." As Wyeth aged, his paintings matured, and his work could even be interpreted as being abstract. Looking closely at objects in the landscape, Wyeth addressed the subject in a deeper way that moved beyond the strictures of realism.
Wyeth died peacefully in his sleep on January 16, 2009 in Chadds Ford. At 91 years of age, he had developed a significant portfolio with thousands of paintings and drawings. His wife, Betsy is still compiling the Catalogue Raisonné of her husband's work.
The Legacy of Andrew Wyeth
During his lifetime and after, poster and print reproductions of Wyeth's paintings could be found in countless homes and dorm rooms, as his paintings sparked an emotional attraction to and nostalgia for the rural life he represented. Wyeth's realism influenced a number of regional artists from Maine and Pennsylvania and across the United States, but with the prominence of abstraction and Conceptual Art, however, many of these painters have not had much, if any, national recognition.
In the decade since his death, scholars have re-evaluated Wyeth's realism and his relation to abstraction and modernism, and his status as an important artist has only grown. Wyeth inspired new generations of artists and filmmakers alike. His youngest son, Jamie, paints realistic, eerie paintings, many of which contain a strong homoerotic perspective. Photographer James Welling and painter Peter Doig have found inspiration from Wyeth's work. Cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz referenced some Wyeth scenes in his Peanuts comics, while the iconic Christina's World remains a mainstay in popular culture and cinema. A 2007 episode of The Simpsons displayed the iconic field and more recently, artist Tim O'Brien painted Kelly Anne Conway checking her phone with the White House in the distance.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Andrew Wyeth
- 926k viewsBBC Michael Palin in Wyeth's WorldOur Pick
- 72k viewsFraming The Christina's World CanvasThe Museum of Modern Art video on framing the famous work
- 21k viewsAndrew Wyeth HomeHouse and studio of Wyeth
- 94k viewsAndrew WyethOur PickInterview with Wyeth on his 80th birthday
- 39k viewsVictoria Browning Wyeth: Growing Up Wyeth - Conversations from Penn StateInterview with the granddaughter of Wyeth
- 7k viewsWyeth Remembered by William E. MarksInterview on the Jim Powell show