Andrew Wyeth is one of America’s most well-known and beloved painters. He was born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in the Brandywine Valley. Due to his fragile health, he was instructed at home by tutors and by his father Newell Convers (N. C.) Wyeth (1882-1945), a celebrated American illustrator who introduced him to art, music, and literature. He initially taught himself how to draw and paint by observing his father at work. Then, from 1932 to 1934, he formally trained with his father, learning perspective drawing, working from plaster casts and the human figure, and painting landscapes and still lifes.
N.C. Wyeth also recommended that his son take watercolor lessons from his friend and colleague Sid Chase. During these early years, Andrew experimented intensively with the medium. His first solo exhibition, at the prestigious Macbeth Gallery in New York in October 1937, was comprised of twenty-three watercolors and “sold out within two days to museums, collectors, and dealers.” (1) He has continued to experiment with the technique throughout his career and through it has achieved some of his most poignant expressions. Although his most highly recognized works are his figurative paintings such as Christina’s World and the images of Helga, Wyeth has painted landscapes throughout his career. As art historian Adam Weinberg observed, Wyeth’s landscapes “cut across time, place, genre, and technique.” (2)
Wyeth used pen and ink and watercolor in his earliest works, but he had begun to work with egg tempera on gesso board by 1940. He learned this medium from his brother-in-law, the American painter Peter Hurd (1904-1984), who participated in the revival of the tempera technique in the United States during the 1930s. Wyeth came to favor the labor-intensive process of tempera painting because of its lasting quality, its methodical and meticulous character, and the craftsmanship it requires. For similar reasons, he turned to the drybrush watercolor technique, in which the artist loads his brush with pigment but not much water and strokes it across a completely dry sheet of paper, creating very crisp and hard-edged marks. (3) This approach enables him to create studies of fleeting moments without foregoing lavish attention to detail. In the drybrush method, he has found the perfect counterbalance to the painstaking tempera technique, which requires multiple layers and takes six months or more to dry.
The 1940s proved to be a formative decade for Wyeth. In May 1940, Wyeth married Betsy James, whose family had a farm in Cushing, Maine. She became actively involved in his artistic pursuits bringing him objects to stimulate his imagination, critiquing his paintings in progress, and giving titles to many of his works. She also introduced him to the Olsons of Maine; they and their farm served as the subject for numerous watercolors and temperas. In 1943, with the support of his wife, Wyeth declined a lucrative offer to paint cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, and instead decided to pursue a career as an independent fine artist. Two years later, his father was killed by a train at a crossing in Chadds Ford. The unexpected, tragic, and sudden death of his father had a major impact on Wyeth’s work. He started to create more introspective images, dealing with brooding, melancholic themes, such as illness, mortality, and the transience of life. Most notably, in 1948, he painted Christina’s World (Museum of Modern Art), which portrays the disabled, solitary Christina Olson in the middle of a vast field, looking back longingly at her house. By the late 1940s, Wyeth’s mature style had developed. As the Wyeth scholar Anne Classen Knutson explains, he “sealed his work from the contemporary art world and plumbed his own life and art for subject matter, creating and continually refining the heightened symbolic and sentient qualities of his best-known paintings.” (4)
Two places, Pennsylvania and Maine, have played an essential role in shaping his oeuvre. Since the late 1920s, when his father purchased a house in Port Clyde, Maine, Wyeth has spent his summers in Maine and his winters in Chadds Ford. He has close personal ties to both locales, and he changes his subject matter and his palette depending on which place he is portraying: his Chadds Ford pieces consist primarily of tans, browns, and whites whereas his Maine works tend to include brighter blues and greens. (5)
Throughout his career, Wyeth has explored a number of subjects in great depth. From the 1950s into the 1970s, he repeatedly painted the farm owned by his neighbors Karl and Anna Kuerner in Chadds Ford. From 1971 to 1985, he completed hundreds of drawings and paintings, many of them nudes of Karl Kuerner’s caretaker, Helga Testorf. In 1987, almost a hundred of these so-called “Helga pictures” were exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Following this series, from the mid-1980s until 1991, he embarked on another group of images, merging his model Ann Call with the Maine landscape. Wyeth died at home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in 2009.
Wyeth has exhibited his work throughout the United States and abroad, showing in Japan several times. In 1936, at the age of nineteen, he mounted his first exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and the following year had his first one-person show at the Macbeth Gallery in New York, which sold out on the first day. By the 1970s, his work had become so popular that he was given a large retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1976). This exhibition was the first extensive presentation of a living artist’s work by the museum. He has received numerous accolades: honorary degrees from colleges and universities, including Swarthmore College (1958), Princeton University (1965), and the University of Pennsylvania (1972); presidential medals from John F. Kennedy (1963) and George H.W. Bush (1990); awards from art organizations, among them the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (the Percy M. Owens Memorial Award, 1960), the American Academy of Arts and Letters (gold medal, 1965), and the American Watercolor Society (the Dolphin Medal, 1994). Notably, he was the youngest member ever elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
1. Anne Classen Knutson, “Andrew Wyeth’s Language of Things” in Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (Atlanta: High Museum of Art; Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Rizzoli, New York, 2005), 66.
2. Wyeth, as quoted in M. J. Albacete, “Introduction: Exploring the Wyeth Phenomenon” in Andrew Wyeth: From Public and Private Collections (Canton, OH: The Canton Art Institute, 1985), 7.
3. In a conversation with Thomas Hoving, Wyeth described his drybrush technique: “I paint with a smaller brush, dip it into color, splay out the brush and bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture and color with my fingers so that there’s only a very small amount of paint left. It’s a weaving process – one applies layers of drybrush over and within the broad washes of watercolor. And I sometimes throw in pencil and Higgins’ ink.” Wyeth, as quoted in Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company in association with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, 1995), 10-11.
4. Knutson, “Andrew Wyeth’s Language of Things,” 45.
5. John Wilmerding, “Introduction” in Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic, 19.
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