CHADDS FORD, Penn.—Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009) would be 100 years old today. The first exhibition to span his entire career since his death, “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect,” is punctuated by surprises—paintings and studies rarely seen, conveying aspects of his life and work previously bypassed. One wishes this iconic American artist could have lived another hundred years, to see how his paintings would have developed even further.
Wyeth’s last paintings before his death were some of many memorable surprises in the exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, which ran from June 24 to Sept. 17. The exhibition was co-organized with the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), where it opened on Oct. 19 and will run until Jan. 15, 2018.
Wyeth’s last painting, “Goodbye,” depicts his wife’s elaborate surprise gift to him on his 91st birthday—a sail loft atop a hill on Allen Island, Maine, with an elegant gallery for his paintings. He combined his three mediums in this painting—graphite, watercolor, and tempera. It conveys a sense of lightness, and a beautiful, calm resolution in his gratitude to his wife. It’s a deeply personal painting and yet, like all of Wyeth’s work, it appeals to a wide public.
Wyeth once said about his wife, Betsy, to his biographer and lifelong friend, Richard Meryman, “She pulled out of me a depth I doubt I ever would have had if I had not met her. She made me go down deep within me and emotionally think a lot” (“Andrew Wyeth: A Spoken Self-Portrait”).
Other surprises in the exhibition included a description of Wyeth’s obsession with a silent film about World War I, “The Big Parade,” directed by King Vidor. He owned a reel, and after he had watched it 180 times, he contacted Vindor. The exhibition in Seattle shows a 12-minute excerpt of a film Vidor made of his interview with Wyeth in 1975. The two men talk about how they both relied on metaphor in their creative processes, and Wyeth discloses the ideas that he drew from the Vindor’s film. He probably watched it 500 times in total. Its influence can be seen in several of his paintings, including one of his most recognized, titled “Winter 1946,” of a boy running down a hill. The composition is reminiscent of the last scene of the film, showing an American soldier limping down a hill.
But more poignantly, Wyeth was compelled to paint “Winter 1946” a month after his father’s funeral, when he spotted a local boy, Allan Lynch, running crazily down the hill near the railroad tracks where his father and nephew had been killed in a car hit by a train. “Wyeth must have sensed a quality of desperation in Allan, who would kill himself a few years later,” art historian Henry Adams wrote in the exhibition catalog.
“Winter 1946” marked the beginning of Wyeth’s maturation as a painter, and it helped him come to terms with the tragic loss of his father. He later recounted that the hill “seemed to be breathing—rising and falling—almost as though it was my father’s chest,” as recounted in the exhibition. No matter how many times one has seen reproductions of this painting, seeing it in person is incredibly stirring.
The painting owned by a Japanese collector, “Thin Ice,” highlighted Wyeth’s affinity for the Japanese sensibility of spirituality in nature and acceptance of the cycles of life and death; and a series of drawings and paintings of African Americans, has also rarely been seen before.
And a couple of paintings from Wyeth’s Helga series—including “Black Velvet,” which depicts his muse reclining against a black background, appearing as if suspended in a dream—hearken back to his penchant and need for secrecy, a space for desire and replenishment.
The tempera “Snow Hill,” incorporating the people and key places Wyeth painted throughout his life during his favorite season, was also a wonderful surprise. Similar to “Goodbye,” it gives a sense of resolve and completeness. “Snow Hill” seems to be taken from the iconic final scene from Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal,” when the knight and his followers, hand-in-hand, are being led away over a hill.
He was obsessed with other films besides “The Big Parade.” The shelves in his studio were filled with books about movies and filmmaking, said exhibition co-curator Patricia Junker of SAM.
“Wyeth’s affinity with the contemporary art world was with moviemaking, not with abstract expressionist painting [of the 20th century],” Junker said. He was drawn to cinematic effects that went beyond storytelling and delved deeper into the characters’ psychological exploration, she added.
While Brandywine focused on Wyeth’s attachment to place, to home, and to his local community, the exhibition in Seattle focuses on time, on how Wyeth fits in the context of the 20th century as he connected with the dominant art form of film.
Layered and Timeless Wyeth
Wyeth painted for 75 years, straddling the 20th and 21st centuries. “Few other artists’ careers course through the entirety of the modern era as steadily as Andrew Wyeth’s,” Junker wrote in the exhibition catalog.
As the son and student of the preeminent illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, he was given every chance to become an artist, but he also worked at it, he told Meryman. Wandering across the hills of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, or in Port Clyde and Cushing, Maine, where he would spend summers, was never a waste of time. These places were his constant source of inspiration. Some people would question him for working six months on a painting. “That isn’t it,” he told Meryman. “It’s a matter of getting involved in the thing that is important. Time really means nothing.”
Wyeth’s search was for the growth and depth of his emotion in what he painted—be it a tree branch, a young woman, a river, an aging war veteran, a pinecone, a farmer, a hill, or whatever triggered his imagination. Sometimes he would just make one line on a piece of paper for the day, and it would stimulate his imagination for months. “I do more painting when I am not painting. … I begin to see an emotion building up before I even put it down on the panel,” he told Meryman.
When we look at Wyeth’s paintings, we are instantly pulled in, unable to restrain ourselves from feeling our own emotions unfolding. His sincere creativity and dedication, his way of sanctifying with paint the people and things he loved, things that would usually go unnoticed, are what render his paintings so timeless, gripping, and expansive.
Brandywine displayed over 100 paintings, 15 from its own collection, and the rest from 40 lenders, including the Andrew Wyeth Estate. Droves of visitors streamed into the museum every day of the exhibit’s run.
“Andrew Wyeth was always popular with the public, beginning even early in his career. That continued through his lifetime and still is today,” said the co-curator Audrey Lewis of Brandywine River Museum.
“The most satisfying part of the exhibition was seeing that people have reacted to his work in layers,” Lewis said. “I saw some people come away feeling very emotional, even moved toward tears. Instead of just seeing Wyeth as this painter of barns and farms, they have a more in depth reaction in recognizing there is more emotion there than they had initially thought. They respond to more than just the great realism in his work.”
Not since the 1970s and ’80s has there been a large exhibition of Wyeth’s work on the West Coast. The day before the opening in Seattle, 500 people attended a members’ preview and 1,000 reservations were already filled for a second preview, Junker said.
Many artists revere Wyeth. Realist artists, especially, are grateful for his work, and especially during the height of modernism, when art critics tried to denigrate his work and realism in general. Still, Wyeth was dubbed “America’s greatest living artist” by popular media (such as Time magazine). His paintings were selling at record prices, and his retrospective exhibitions in 1966 and 1967 broke attendance records for living artists. The Whitney Museum drew close to 250,000 visitors and prompted art critics to assess the Wyeth phenomenon, Junker wrote in the exhibition catalog.
Yet, as much as the art critics looked down on realism at that time and criticized Wyeth for it, he would not necessarily define himself as a realist per se. “I would say realism is the weakest part of my work, really,” Wyeth told Meryman. “Elusiveness is what interests me. I’m trying to capture the quality of the abstract flash and in the picture look at it directly.” By abstract flash, he meant the selected visual elements of the reality he had observed and wished to represent.
“I put a lot of things into my work, which are very personal to me. So how can the public feel these things? I think most people get to my work through the back door. They’re attracted by the realism and sense the emotion and the abstraction—and eventually, I hope, they get to their own powerful emotion,” the exhibition displayed this quote of Wyeth from Richard Meryman’s book “Andrew Wyeth: A Spoken Self-Portrait.”
“He’s completely manipulating everything that is there,” Sokol said while looking at Wyeth’s tempera “Mother Archie’s Church.”
“I have noticed his incredible sense of design. It becomes believable space, but it is very personal,” Sokol added. Wyeth depicted the remains of an octagonal structure that once housed a church that was frequented by a small African-American community.
Looking at the landscape, “Hoffman’s Slough,” Madrid said: “He has created enough structure here in terms of design, and yet he is also putting in elements of the real landscape with little points and changing the perspective. That little house is so far away and yet the plane of the painting is coming toward you—fantastic!” Sokol chimed in, “He created all these perspective planes. I think he worked a lot from his imagination.”
They felt Wyeth’s ability to personify landscapes and things, his ability to literally draw you into the scene of the painting. Their reaction mirrored how Wyeth described his creative process to Meryman. “You get far enough involved and you feel like you are in there. You are actually in the valley. You are there,” he said.
The paintings Wyeth created in his last decade are especially satisfying. He introduced more colors into his palette, his paint layers look more effortless, and his style looks more integrated. It’s as if he had let go of the darkness of his past. “The biggest paintings he made were when he was at his oldest,” Junker said. “He was really flexing his muscles. He was still saying, ‘I’m still here.'”