Andrew Wyeth - Biography and Legacy
Chadds Ford, PA
Chadds Ford, PA
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.