- David Cateforis
Wyeth, Andrew (12 July 1917–16 January 2009), painter, was born Andrew Newell Wyeth in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the fifth and youngest child of Newell Convers (N. C.) Wyeth and Carolyn Brenneman Bockius. N. C. Wyeth, a highly successful illustrator famous for the images he created for such classics as Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and The Last of the Mohicans, encouraged the talents of his children, three of whom grew up to be painters. Andrew was often ill as a child and was educated at home by tutors. He passed much of his time drawing, playing with toy soldiers and his father’s collection of historical costumes and props, and roaming the countryside.
Recognizing his son’s talent, N.C. began giving Andrew formal instruction in art in October 1932. N.C. not only provided rigorous academic training in drawing but also instructed his son to empathize with his subjects to the point of sensing himself becoming the thing or person he was rendering. Testifying to the lasting impact of N.C.’s teaching, Andrew Wyeth’s mature work would be marked both by technical discipline and a sense of emotional identification with his subjects. Unlike his father who specialized in depicting subjects from literature, however, Wyeth devoted himself to painting the rustic people, places, and things he knew personally in the circumscribed worlds of Chadds Ford and the Maine coastland around the Saint George Peninsula, where the Wyeth family spent their summers.
Wyeth’s first important works, made in Maine in the summer of 1936, were watercolors painted in a loose, splashy, and colorful style influenced by Winslow Homer. N.C. showed them to the dealer Robert Macbeth, who gave Andrew his first New York solo exhibition in October 1937. It sold out on the second day and launched the young artist’s career.
While Andrew Wyeth continued to produce and exhibit loosely executed watercolors throughout his life, he gained renown in the 1940s for his meticulously detailed work in the demanding mediums of drybrush watercolor and tempera. Wyeth likened tempera, in which pigment suspended in egg yolk is laid down with small brushes in layers, to the weaving of textiles or the evolution of the earth.
In the summer of 1939 Wyeth met Betsy Merle James, whose family summered in Cushing, Maine. They were married in May 1940 when he was twenty-two years old and she, eighteen. As Andrew’s career developed, Betsy became his business manager and curator in addition to running their Maine and Pennsylvania households and raising their two sons, Nicholas (b. 1943), who became an art dealer, and James (Jamie, b. 1946), who became a well-known painter. Early in their marriage Betsy dissuaded Andrew from following N.C.’s path into commercial illustration, and she supported his adoption of a subdued color palette, against N.C.’s protestations.
Andrew Wyeth’s temperas received their first major public exposure in a 1943 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, American Realists and Magic Realists. Critics thereafter would often label Wyeth a magic realist for his ability to render ordinary rural people, places, and objects in a meticulously detailed style while imbuing them with haunting emotional qualities and hints of symbolic meaning. Much of Wyeth’s work conveys a concern with loss and mortality, as in the tempera Winter Fields (1942), whose striking composition combines a worm’s-eye view of a dead crow in the foreground with a vista of brown fields and farm buildings in the distance. Painted at the height of World War II, this picture may allude to the fallen bodies of soldiers on the battlefield.
The theme of mortality struck close to home in October 1945 when N. C. Wyeth, along with his three-year old grandson, was killed by a train that struck his car at a railroad crossing by the Chadds Ford farm of the German immigrants Karl and Anna Kuerner. Andrew later maintained that his father’s death gave him an emotional reason to paint and to seek greater depth of expression in his art. The first tempera he made after N.C.’s death, Winter 1946 (1946), shows a boy awkwardly running down a hill in the cold winter light. On the other side of the hill is the railroad crossing where N.C. died. Andrew saw himself in the boy and identified the hill with the body of his father, saying he could almost feel it breathe.
The Kuerners and their farm, which Andrew Wyeth had been depicting since the 1930s, became key subjects of his in the years following his father’s death, in part because Wyeth came to consider Karl Kuerner a surrogate for N. C. Wyeth. The well-known tempera Groundhog Day (1959) depicts the Kuerners’ sun-lit kitchen table with a view through a window to a chain-wrapped cut log and a barbed-wire fence, whose menacing appearance counters the serenity of the interior. Wyeth’s images often refer to absent people through objects associated with them; in this case, the cup and saucer, plate, and knife on the table evoke Karl Kuerner.
The Cushing, Maine, farm of Alvaro and Christina Olson, to which Betsy had taken Andrew on the day they met, became the Maine counterpart to the Kuerner farm in Pennsylvania. Wyeth’s most famous tempera, Christina’s World (1948), depicts the paraplegic Christina crawling in a field below her house, with her back turned to the viewer, which imbues the scene with an aura of mystery and longing. Purchased for $1,800 by the Museum of Modern Art in 1949, the picture quickly became one of the museum’s most popular works and an icon of American art.
By the early 1950s Wyeth was one of the country’s most famous and successful artists, respected even by the champions of the abstract avant-garde who found his magic realist style modern in its ability to convey stirring emotional qualities through meticulously rendered and arrestingly composed images. Honors flowed to Wyeth, including an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, both in 1955. Museums made headlines by paying record prices for Wyeth’s temperas, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art buying Groundhog Day for $31,000 in 1959 and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, buying Her Room for $65,000 in 1963. In December 1963 Wyeth’s portrait graced the cover of Time magazine, which reported his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s major exhibitions of Wyeth’s work were organized by prominent American museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (1962); the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1966; the exhibition traveled to museums in Baltimore, New York, and Chicago); the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1970); the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (1973); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1976). And in 1970 Wyeth became the first American artist to be given a one-person exhibition at the White House, where President Richard M. Nixon toasted him.
Even as Wyeth achieved tremendous popular success, however, many art critics in the late 1960s and 1970s denigrated his work, labeling him a reactionary purveyor of easily consumed, stickily sentimental illustrations of a rural past that had never existed. Wyeth’s critical reputation reached its nadir amid the flood of publicity surrounding the Helga pictures—an extensive series of drawings, watercolors, and tempera paintings of his Pennsylvania neighbor Helga Testorf, many of them depicting her nude—which Wyeth had painted in secrecy over a fifteen-year period, without the knowledge of his wife, and then sold in 1986 to the collector Leonard E. B. Andrews for a reported $6 million. A national tour of the Helga pictures that began its run at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., attracted substantial press coverage and large audiences, but the majority of critics who reviewed the show reacted against what they saw as excessive hyping of a body of work they called boring, clichéd, and technically weak.
Notwithstanding the skepticism of such critics, Wyeth remained a tremendously popular artist, not only in his home country—a 1996 exhibition declared him “America’s Painter”—but also in Japan, where his art was avidly collected and widely exhibited from the 1970s onward. He continued to garner official honors, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988 and the National Medal of Arts in 2007. And by the time of the last American retrospective exhibition held during his lifetime, Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic (2005–2006), mainstream critical opinion was swinging toward greater appreciation of Wyeth, who was now praised rather than condemned for his long-standing independence from art world fashion and recognized anew for his remarkable technical and expressive abilities.
Despite failing health in his final years, Andrew Wyeth continued to paint until his death, which occurred at his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He was buried in Maine next to his friend Christina Olson.
Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life (1996), is a detailed biography, informed by the author’s interviews with Wyeth over a thirty-year period. The most comprehensive studies of Wyeth’s art are Wanda M. Corn, The Art of Andrew Wyeth (1973), and Anne Classen Knutson, Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic (2005). Thomas Hoving, Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: A Conversation with Andrew Wyeth (1978), features extensive commentary by the artist on his images of the Kuerners and Olsons and their respective Pennsylvania and Maine environments. John Wilmerding, Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures (1987), interprets and explains Wyeth’s famous series of images of the model Helga Testorf. David Cateforis, ed., Rethinking Andrew Wyeth (2014), is a collection of scholarly essays on the artist. An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 16 Jan. 2009.