Progression of Art
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 - 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