Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Remembering Andrew Wyeth

In other art news, on Friday Andrew Wyeth, the American artist who painted Christina's World, died at the age of 91. I figured I'd write this post to share what I've read about the man and my impressions of his work.

The Man, the Artist

Andrew Wyeth came from an artistic family: his father, N. C. Wyeth, achieved notoriety as an illustrator of adventure stories such as Treasure Island. His childhood and his entire life would be spent divided between homes in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (a rural community between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware) and the coastal town of Cushing, Maine.

Wyeth's popularity and financial success began in 1937 when his first solo exhibition, comprised of watercolors of the Maine coast, sold out in a New York gallery. He was 20 years old. Throughout his career, Wyeth's work was much beloved by the American people: one art critic called him the "spiritual leader of middle America," and he was even billed as "America's artist" (which makes me think of how Kenner, LA is America's city). But, perhaps in part because of this popularity, Wyeth's reputation among the art establishment has always been ambivalent. Some art critics dismissed Wyeth as being extraneous to contemporary movements in American art (e.g. his work is largely representational when most painters were exploring the abstract); others saw him as a mere illustrator (like his father or Norman Rockwell), and one critic even said that when compared with the master draftsmen Wyeth couldn't draw.

But I think there's a lot going on below the surface in Wyeth's best works. He liked to paint with egg tempera because he thought it lent his work "a cocoonlike feeling of dry lostness – almost a lonely feeling." He also favored subdued colors (sometimes evoking sepia tones), and almost all his paintings are set in autumn and winter ("when," he said, "you feel the bone structure of the landscape"). Thus – far from being merely pretty or sentimental – most of his works are pervaded by a feeling of loss or of alienation (I think the comparison to Edward Hopper is an apt one), and his landscapes tend to be harsh and naturalistic. Some of his works like Trodden Weed or Heat Lightning even manage to evoke movement and sound.

Some Notable Works

In 1945, Andrew Wyeth's father died along with his (Andrew's) 4-year-old nephew when their car stalled on a railway crossing near the family's Chadds Ford home. Wyeth's painting, Winter, 1946, is of a young man running down the side of a hill right by where the accident occurred, and the artist said that for him the land embodied his late father. Wyeth also began painting his Chadds Ford neighbors, the Kuerners, who were German immigrants. Karl Kuerner, the subject of his 1948 work Karl, had been a machine gunner who had once mowed down American soldiers in WWI and he was a stand in for Wyeth's father.

In the '80s, Wyeth surprised the art world with an exhibition of paintings he had done over the course of ten years – all of the same subject, another German immigrant, named Helga. Interest in the collection was fueled in part by stories that the two had kept their meetings a secret to everyone and that their collaboration put a strain on Wyeth's marriage, but some people now believe this suggestion of impropriety was all a publicity stunt.

Christina's World

By far Wyeth's most famous painting, Christina's World shows us a young woman with her back turned to us looking up at a greying farmhouse on a hill. This painting exudes drama. The story behind it is that Wyeth was inspired by Christina Olson, a neighbor in Cushing, Maine, whose legs were crippled by polio in childhood. Thus the painting's "Christina" (the model was actually Wyeth's wife Betsy) is facing the daunting prospect of crawling back to her home magnifying the object's distance. But looking at Christina's World you could imagine other stories: what happened in that house? Did something violent happen to Christina? It could almost be the closing shot of a horror movie.

Where to see Wyeth's work

There are several works of Andrew Wyeth which you can see here in DC, in the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Christina's World is on display in New York's Museum of Modern Art and Winter 1946 can be found at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Many more works of art by Andrew Wyeth and other members of the Wyeth family can be seen at Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and in Cushing, Maine you can see the Olson House which is now a museum.

Images: Winter 1946, Helga and Christina's World paintings by Andrew Wyeth; photo of Olson House by flickr user Bob Travis used under Creative Commons license.


nola32 said...

ahhhhhh!!!! i couldn't even read the rest of the damn post because i'm at work RIGHT NOW in america's city. for a moment i was carried away into the cyber fantasy 'i'm here but not really here' world of too much information but then you had to go and bring it up and bring me crashing back down to reality with those two words!! no wonder i'm moving to scotland if this is america's city!!! uuuggghhh!!!

nola32 said...

ok, so i'm calm now. i really like his work (i also really like hopper-- do you remember that i had that postcard of 'the paint scrapers' up on my wall?). i think i just like that feeling of isolation that i get from their work (i guess that's why i like 'snow at giverny' so much as well).

Meeg said...

I love Hopper too. There's was this huge Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery last year it was like almost too much Hopper.

nola32 said...

i feel like there's a lot of his stuff at orsay in paris. that whole museum is over-whelming though. it's got so many of the really great impressionist works that you come to a point at which you actually stop appreciating greatness and it all just blends together (so, i totally feel you on the 'too much' front).

Meeg said...

That's the thing with big museums. Ideally, you should be able to make multiple trips there and just digest a bit at a time, but sometimes its like you're visiting town and so you try to see as much as possible. It makes your head spin (I feel a post on the Stendhal syndrome coming down the pipes).