Friday, January 16, 2009

Andrew Wyeth, 1917 – 2009

Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth, an American realist painter who in some ways epitomized the conflict between late 20th Century Modernism and the Realist tradition, died today in his sleep in his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania at the age of 91.

Wyeth was the son of the great American illustrator N.C. Wyeth. Those familiar with the elder Wyeth’s work will know that he cast a mighty big shadow. Son Andrew, one of five children, differentiated himself from his father by working in watercolor and tempera instead of oil, replacing his father’s bold colors with a subdued, almost suppressed palette, and emphasizing texture in place of color.

His quiet depictions of the Brandywine Valley countryside and the area around the family’s summer home in Maine, along with his often melancholy portrayals of residents of those areas, made him prominent as one of the public’s most admired American artists in the 20th Century.

Of course that very popularity, and the simple matter of his realist (though sometimes surreal) subject matter, and traditionalist technique, made him a target for derision among modernist critics, who denigrated classical traditions with a vengeance during their time of dominating the art world. Though his early watercolors were well received, and Christina’s World was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, the modernists eventually felt the need to tear him down. They hurled at Wyeth the intended insult of calling him a “mere illustrator”, as though there were no more vehement way to say “not an artist”, and in the process, of course, belittling his father’s accomplishments.

Wyeth quietly persisted in the face of the post-war Modernist tides, and continued his pursuit of contemplative scenes, keen observation and command of the somewhat arcane techniques of egg tempera, a demanding and difficult to master medium that predates oil painting by centuries.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that Wyeth’s paintings were in demand and sold for high figures during the artist’s lifetime (a relatively rare thing in the history of art); and he became one of the best known American artists ever, eclipsing his father’s fame from previous generations. Wyeth eventually had the last laugh, as a good deal critical attention eventually came into line the popular acclaim after the Modernist wave had crashed and the fab foam began receding under the currents of the return of traditional artistic values.

I personally run hot and cold on Andrew Wyeth’s work, finding less appeal in his major tempera paintings than in his intimate and informal watercolors and drawings, particularly those of the Brandywine Valley, near where I grew up. Wyeth at his best was a keen eye and a careful observer, letting nature guide his hand. His figure paintings and drawings almost always included something of the countryside, or the rustic buildings and interiors associated with it, as an integral co-subject, more than simply a backdrop.

The painting above, Dryad, painted in 2000 (more detail and info here), reverses that situation; in a way sublimating the figure and nominal subject of the painting, model Senna Moore, to Wyeth’s intensely focused rendering of a great oak on his Chadds Ford property that had been split open by lightning.

Admittedly, I have trouble viewing Andrew Wyeth without making comparisons with his father. Because of the high regard I have for his work, N.C. Wyeth is my favorite illustrator and one of my favorite painters in general, it’s a difficult and probably unfair comparison.

If you want to see Andrew Wyeth’s work in the context of his artistic family, the Brandywine River Museum, near his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, has a terrific collection of work by Andrew, his artistically inclined sisters, his son, Jamie, also a noted artist, and, of course, his father, N.C. Wyeth. (If anyone puts the lie to the phrase “mere illustration”, it’s N.C. Wyeth, who was to my mind one of the finest American painters, period.)

There is also a nice, and inexpensive, book that puts the three generations of Wyeth’s, N.C., Andrew and Jamie, in one volume, An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art: N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, James Wyeth.

For more, see my post on Andrew Wyeth from 2006.

Addendum: Katherine Tyrrell has an extensive Squidoo Lens of information and resources relating to Andrew Wyeth.

17 thoughts on “Andrew Wyeth, 1917 – 2009

  1. Katherine

    Interesting review Charley – I can see how you regard for his father would influence how your perspective on his son. That whole relationship and the contrast between their styles is really intriguing.

    I’m also going to have a go at doing a review but only after I’ve read through all the obits – which I’m now busy collecting links to on the resources site I set up for him a while back Andrew Wyeth – Resources for Art Lovers. I don’t know if it includes anything you’ve not come across before.

  2. Gail Sauter

    Although Andrew Wyeth passed away yesterday, the vitality of his work remains with us.

    As an example: Wind from the Sea –

    What I so admire about this painting is the majesty he brings to everyday life. He found drama in a blowing curtain, and managed to conjure up the very breeze itself and the feel of the air as it sweeps in from the sea. Can’t you smell the salt air and hear a seagull in the distance? That is Wyeth’s magic. But, it’s not what he painted that holds us spellbound, it’s how he painted it.

    His care and technical mastery are so flawless as to be transparent, never intruding or interrupting. He pares everything down to the essentials – subject matter, color, brushstrokes. He is a magician conjuring up a world for us as if by slight of hand, allowing nothing to distract us from the tale he wants to tell.

    He begins “Once upon a time, a curtain was blowing” … but the rest is up to us…and the story isn’t over yet. Thank you, Andrew Wyeth 1917 – 2009

  3. James Gurney

    I’m glad you showed one of his recent pieces. The 2005 book on his work, “Memory and Magic,” has some of his paintings from just a few years ago, and it’s remarkable how fresh and surprising his vision remained to the end. With so many people imitating him, he never imitated himself.

  4. Troy Oxford

    I highly recommend the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA to see a great collection of Wyeth family art. The wife and I went a few years ago and loved it.

  5. Don O'Shea

    Many years ago, when I was doing my graduate work at Hopkins, the Baltimore Museum of Art, a stone’s throw from the Homewood campus, there was a major Wyeth exhibition. I went with anticipation, but left in consternation. It was the only time I have ever gone to an exhibit and been unimpressed by the technique. It’s not something I think about or pay much attention to. Somehow the examination of those acres of Andrew Wyeth works up close was truly offputting. Maybe it was too much of good thing—but I think not. Despite Wyeth’s statements about his painting, I felt there was less to his work than meets the eye. But I like his father’s illustrations!

  6. Lane Meyers

    “In October 1945 his father and his three-year-old nephew, Newell Convers Wyeth II (b. 1941), were killed when their car stalled on railroad tracks near their home, and was struck by a train. Wyeth referred to his father’s death as a formative emotional event in his artistic career, in addition to being a personal tragedy. [4] Shortly afterwards, Wyeth’s art consolidated into his mature and enduring style; characterized by a subdued color palette, realistic renderings, and the depiction of emotionally charged, symbolic objects and/or people.” –Wiki

    I have always found this transformation to be very interesting. Gives a whole new meaning to “death benefits”.

  7. Casey Klahn

    AW was a great pillar in American art, and it is a shame how the critics felt they needed to arbitrate my relationship to his art. I love his work, period.

    Thanks for a positive obit., Charley.

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