Wyeth’s World

Andrew Wyeth, at 91 one of the most popular American artists of the 20th century, died early today in his sleep. Here’s a story I wrote about him three years ago, during a major retrospective of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

Why travel the world in search of meaning and beauty, when all of life’s possibilities exist in your own backyard?

Andrew Wyeth became one of this nation’s greatest artists while focusing on the land surrounding his homes in Chadds Ford, Pa., and Maine. Of course it helped that he was surrounded by rural landscapes rich with natural beauty. He learned to search deep within his internal landscape to fulfill his wanderlust and embark on the greatest of journeys.

While investigating the richness nature offered – “If you want something profound, the American countryside is exactly the place,” he wrote – he discovered the complexities of the human condition and the fragile line between life and death.

And yet, for one so obsessed with loss, death and the passage of time, Andrew Wyeth, 88, is still working. “He’s probably already made drawings this morning. It’s his way of breathing,” says Kathleen Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Working at the same time as the abstract expressionists, “he is not just a camera recording life,” she says, although his subject matter often paralleled such photographers as Walker Evans. “He tapped into surrealist themes. There’s something about his things and interiors that is magical.”

Buckets, boats, boots, cloaks and other vessels in Wyeth’s paintings leave a memory of absent owners and inhabit a human presence and become portraits without having a figure in the painting. Through open windows and doorways, a spirit enters or exits just as the breeze creates billows in the curtain.

“He loves the transfer of space, the liberations of space to the outdoors, the transfer from captivity and yearning, with nature as the theater where emotions are played out,” says Ms. Foster. These thresholds offer mystery, the tantalizing promise of revelation.

“All I want to do is paint,” said Wyeth, “and I paint the things I know best.”

Using such subjects as old oak buckets, his spare and elegant sense of composition is fundamentally abstract. “His paintings look like great abstractions at a distance and reward you even further when you get close up,” says Ms. Foster.

Wyeth’s landscapes are not exactly images of pastoral tranquility, but filled with danger and violence. “Nature is not nice,” he said.

Wyeth is a voyeur. Gaining the trust of his neighbors, he would be given the keys to their homes, to enter at will to make sketches or watercolors. Sometimes he would achieve the ultimate in intimacy with his subjects by painting them as they slept. He had a fascination with vessels, and beds served as boats, carrying people from the waking life to dreams and beyond.

In “Marriage,” he paints his neighbors sleeping in a pile of pillows and quilts. With the window behind them wide open, the morning sun caresses their slumbering faces, bringing them to another spiritual state. In “Garret Room,” Tom Clark, so tall he must lie diagonally across his grandmother’s quilt, slumbers while the artist is carried away by his own reveries. In “Day Dream,” the model sleeps on a white bed, against a white wall with two windows open to the white sky, covered only by sheer white netting.

Wyeth, who revealed others in their most vulnerable, compromised positions, would never paint his own face in self-portraits. Rather, he painted a bronzed replica of his hands – a gift from his wife, Betsy – in an ice floe. Or he’d paint the boots he was walking in (“Trodden Weed”).

As a young man, Wyeth nearly died on the operating table while having a lung removed. During surgery, he had a vision that a man in black came to get him, then disappeared. “He immediately recognized the man as Albrecht Durer, whose work he had studied at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” says Ms. Foster.

In “Trodden Weed,” the black coat of Albrecht Durer can be seen just above the boots.

The boots themselves once belonged to his father, N.C. Wyeth, who illustrated tales of pirate adventures and used the boots as reference material. Before N.C. Wyeth, the boots had belonged to Howard Pyle, his father’s teacher. “So he’s walking in his father’s footsteps here, as well as his father’s teacher’s and Durer’s, and he’s becoming a pirate, or a swashbuckler,” says Ms. Foster. “This multilayered style is what the exhibit hones in on.”

Born in 1917, Andrew Wyeth was too high-strung and his health too precarious to sit in a classroom, so he was home-schooled. “His imagination and restlessness were cultivated – today they might be medicated,” says Ms. Foster. His father took him on nature walks and trained him to see with sensitivity and identify with his subject emotionally.

“My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing – if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end,” Wyeth is quoted on the exhibit wall.

He studied the work of other artists and practiced drawing and painting from props in the studio. He carried a sketchpad wherever he went and would find subjects that evoked an emotional response.

His sketches would be barely roughed in in the areas he felt confident in, and in areas he needed to explore more fully, there would be more painstaking detail. “I think it’s what you take out of a picture that counts,” he said. “There’s a residue. An invisible shadow.” Then, in a subsequent sketch, he’d blow up some of the details, focusing even more on the sunlight filtering though a window, a dog’s snout in repose. When the dog left the scene, he’d focus on the wallpaper, a place setting, a loaf of bread.

This sketching and preparatory process is demonstrated for “Groundhog Day,” an example of a painting that is more about what’s not in the painting than what we see on the canvas. The final image consists of a white plate, cup and saucer and a knife on a white clothed table, wallpaper, and a window to the outside where we see a jagged-tooth log. What started out as a painting of his neighbor, Karl Kuerner, a German peasant farmer, and his wife and dog in fact contains none of them.

The painting shows us a sunny, peaceful winter kitchen, awaiting the farmer’s return, but it’s also about repressed violence, says Ms. Foster. The jagged splintered log represents tension on top of this contentment.

The German Shepherd was, in fact, a nasty dog, and the sharp edges of the log are symbolic of the latent violence in the sleeping dog. Karl, the master of the scary dog and obedient wife, is a fearsome man who eats only with a knife. “Violence repressed mixed with peace and sunshine is classic Wyeth,” says Ms. Foster.

“Groundhog Day” was painted in 1959. Earlier, in 1948, Wyeth painted “Karl” on the third floor of his farmhouse from a low-angle perspective, showing meat hooks hanging from the cracked ceiling. Karl, ruddy complected, was a German World War I machine gunner, farmer and hunter, and Wyeth admired his self-sufficiency and brutality. In 1975, Wyeth painted “The German” in full regalia, staring icily out from under the helmet’s visor with steely blue eyes. Next to this painting is another painting of the helmet, this time used for collecting pinecones by Karl’s wife, Anna. (Wyeth owns the helmet now and uses it to hold Karl’s ashes.)

In 1978, Karl is painted on the hill beyond which are the tracks where Wyeth’s father was killed when a train hit his car. Karl’s unclothed body appears to be melting into the season’s last patch of snow, yet also rising. His face bears the peaceful repose of death, and this painting probably refers to Wyeth’s father, as well.

As much as he loved to paint people sleeping, Wyeth also loved to paint their clothing as portraits. He preferred to paint alone. He worked in graphite pencil, watercolor and tempera, the latter process – mixing pigment with egg white – taking too long for models to sit. From his father he inherited a great costume collection.

Wyeth was 22 when he married Betsy, 18. It was Betsy who guided him toward painting in monochromatic earth tones. “She was his best friend, his best critic, his muse, his manager, his defender and his jailer,” says Ms. Foster. “She was a control freak as represented in ‘Her Room.'”

The immaculate, spare room contains two windows and a door out to the sea. Inside, a conch shell sits in the crosshatch of light on a blanket chest, and along one of the windowsills, shells are lined up in size order. Ms. Foster recounts how Betsy’s children would sneak into the room and rearrange the shells to see if their mother would notice. Betsy always returned to the room and lined them up correctly.

“The entire exhibit is a kind of self-portrait,” says Ms. Foster.

One final note: If you’re looking for “Christina’s World,” arguably Wyeth’s most well-known painting, be warned – it’s not here. Conservators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York deemed it too fragile to make the trip. “‘There’s a lot to see in this show,'” Ms. Foster quotes Wyeth. “‘So get over “Christina’s World.”‘”

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One Response to Wyeth’s World

  1. Susan Van Dongen says:

    It was refreshing to read this again after a few years; before, I missed the part about Betsy being “his jailer,” someone interested in control. The children sneaking in and re-arranging the seashells — then mom coming in and putting them in their place — was a telling detail about her personality. I also enjoyed the line “his imagination and restlessness were cultivated — today they might be medicated.” Apparently he didn’t travel much but since he was looking — really looking at the details in his surroundings — who needed to get away?

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