Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect – A Review

by artfuldiner on July 24, 2017

in Artful Diner Review, Breaking News, Opinion, Special Celebrations, Special Events

Andrew Wyeth - Wife, BetsyTo mark the 100 anniversary of Andrew Wyeth’s birth, the Brandywine River Museum of Art and the Seattle Art Museum have organized an exhibition of his finest paintings and works on paper selected from major museums and private collections. The exhibition will be on display at the Brandywine from June 24, 2017 – September 17, 2017, followed by its presentation at the Seattle Art Museum beginning in October 2017.

The exhibition, which features over 100 works, examines four major periods in Wyeth’s career: from the early watercolors that established his reputation to his final painting, Goodbye, which was completed just a few months before his death in 2009. The exhibition offers new interpretations of the artist’s work, including the lesser explored influences of popular film and images of war. It also looks more closely at the relatively unstudied numerous portrayals of African Americans from the Chadds Ford community.

Andrew Wyeth - The Lobsterman1935 – 1949: Andrew Wyeth’s emerging presence in the art world. His first medium was watercolor, his works reminiscent of the style of Winslow Homer, debuted at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in 1936. Highlights of this period include Lobsterman (1937), which was painted the summer before his first one-man show in New York. An incredibly successful exhibit, as every painting sold within the first two days.

Andrew Wyeth - Christina's WorldIn 1945, his father and his three-year-old nephew were killed when their car stalled at a railroad crossing. The tragedy caused a profound shift in Wyeth’s art, choosing subjects rife with visual metaphors that reflected his feelings of loss. His breakthrough came in 1948 with a painting of Christina Olson, who is likely to have suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic polyneuropathy. She is seen from behind, crawling across a field toward her house at the top of a small hill. The house is located in Cushing, Maine. Wyeth had a summer home in the area and was on friendly terms with Olson and her younger brother, using them as subjects of paintings from 1940 to 1968. Interestingly enough, although Olson was the inspiration and subject of the painting, she was not the primary model – Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, posed as the torso of the painting.

Christina’s World was first exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan in 1948. Though Wyeth considered the painting something of a failure, and it received little attention from art critics at the time, Alfred Barr, the founding director of the new Museum of Modern Art, quickly purchased it for $1,800. Barr promoted the painting at MoMA and it gradually grew in popularity over the years. Today, it is considered an icon of American art and is rarely loaned out by the museum.

1950 – 1967: During this period, Wyeth focused his attention on his own emotional responses to the landscape around his homes in Chadds Ford and Maine. In Chadds Ford, he painted the Kuerner Farm (now part of the Brandywine River Museum), which was forever associated in his mind to the nearby railroad crossing where his father, N.C. Wyeth, had met a tragic death. In Maine he continued to express his emotional connection with Christina and Alvaro Olson and their 18th-century house.

Andrew Wyeth - In Retrospect Catalogue Front CoverDuring this period, Wyeth also painted a variety of persons he knew in the African American community that had been established in Chadds Ford during the Civil War. There were also extensive studies in pencil and watercolor of African American subjects such as Tom Clark, Adam Johnson, and Willard Snowden, The Drifter (1967), whose portrait adorns the front cover of the Yale University Press catalogue.

Andrew Wyeth - Helga1968 – 1988: At this point in time, Andrew Wyeth was considered one of America’s most famous artists. However, in 1968, his artistic inclinations began to take him in a different direction: He began to explore the realm of what would be considered erotic art. This is the period that was characterized by his first extended series of nude figures: the adolescent Siri Erickson in Maine (with her parents’ permission) and Helga Testorf in Chadds Ford. In 1986, the paintings of his neighbor Helga, which had been painted over a fifteen year period, were revealed to the art world for the first time. The New York Times reported that Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, did not know of the paintings’ existence until 1985, when Wyeth, fearing he might be dying of influenza, told her about them. This revelation caused something of a national sensation; and intimations of an affair propelled a portrait of Helga onto the covers of both Time and Newsweek. In 1987, an exhibition of the paintings mounted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, with a best-selling catalogue introduced by the Gallery’s Deputy Director John Wilmerding, began a circuit to museums in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Detroit. John Updike favorably reviewed the exhibition in “Heavily Hyped Helga,” which appeared originally in The New Republic and was later reprinted in his Just Looking: Essays on Art.

Not everyone, however, accepted the history of the paintings presented by the Wyeths. The major dissenter was Robert Hughes, chief art critic of Time magazine, who harbored the suspicion that a nonexistent scandal had been created in order to hype the paintings and drive up their sales price. “I expressed skepticism about it,” he recalled two decades later. “It all seemed a little too good to be quite true, and the romance with the blonde struck me as distinctly unlikely. And since it had long been a well-known fact that Betsy Wyeth was her husband’s business manager, the notion of a quarter of a thousand objects squirreled away from her eyes over one-third of their matrimonial life together seemed even less likely.”

If you also consider the fact that it would have been nearly impossible for Wyeth to hide the paintings’ existence from his wife because of the amount of time he had to have spent with Helga… that Nancy Hoving, wife of the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time, had seen at least one of the Helga works… that the Brandywine River Museum acknowledged that it knew of the paintings’ existence before it was revealed to the world and, in fact, had already displayed some from time to time… and that Wyeth’s sister, Carolyn, dismissed the idea of an affair between her brother and Helga as “a bunch of crap…” then Hughes’ assertion appears even more plausible. Another bit of intrigue to ponder as you’re strolling through the exhibition.

Whatever your point of view on this subject, however, I think that most viewers – this writer included – would undoubtedly agree with John Updike’s insightful perception of Andrew Wyeth’s erotic musings: “They significantly add to a venerable genre rather undernourished in America, where the menace and sadness of naked flesh have impressed artists as much as its grandeur and allure. When all the hype has faded… Wyeth’s fifteen years of friendly interest in Helga should leave a treasurable residue.”

1989 – 2009: Beginning in 1989, Wyeth’s painting became infinitely more self-reflective; partly related, perhaps, to the critical backlash related to the Helga paintings. His late works are often enigmatic, infused with a surreal quality that recalls his earliest paintings and, at times, directly seems to reference them.

Andrew Wyeth - Snow HillIn that state of reflection, he began Snow Hill, a large tempera to mark his 70th birthday in 1987. He finished the painstaking work a full two years later. Here Wyeth conjured up the dramatis personae of his Chadds Ford paintings and brought them together in a festive dance atop Kuerner’s Hill. As co-curator Patricia Junker notes: “This dreamscape is strange but suggests ancient traditions – a Yuletide circle dance, perhaps, overlaid with aspects of a medieval danse macabre, in which the dead dance with the living. Wyeth seems to have considered the dancers martyrs to his art.” Evidently, Wyeth was quoted as saying he had “raised hell with them mentally and emotionally… They wish I were dead so they wouldn’t have to pose anymore.”

But the circle is not closed. One dancer at the rear, who would have held the second white ribbon, is absent (at least unseen). Some have speculated that the ribbon represented the artist himself. Others believe instead that the ribbon may be for the crippled Christina Olson. The other possible candidate for the missing dancer is the artist’s wife, Betsy Wyeth. For it was she who gave the painting its title, Snow Hill, from a poetic reference in Moby Dick to the great white whale – “A hump like a snow-hill!” Then there are others who speculate that this snow hill may also be a metaphor for Andrew Wyeth’s own nemesis, his father, N.C. Wyeth.

Snow Hill represents a painting from the height of Wyeth’s powers that is relatively little known, seen or reproduced. While it has been on loan to the Brandywine Museum for several years, its fragility of surface has kept it from going out on loan to a wider audience; and its singularity of subject matter has not readily found it a place in recent Wyeth monographs or exhibition catalogues. Only posterity is likely to sort out which of his paintings will stand up as his most memorable works… but Snow Hill is likely to hold its own as one of the most haunting, beautiful and resonant of Wyeth’s seven-decade career.

Andrew Wyeth - 1963 Time Magazine CoverAndrew Wyeth’s work is held in the most prestigious public collections in the United States. In 1963, he was the first living American artist to be exhibited in the White House when he was the first artist to receive the Presidential Freedom Award given by President John F. Kennedy. In 1980, he was the first American artist to have a retrospective at London’s Royal Academy. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1963; and, in 1985, both Time and Newsweek carried rival covers of Helga paintings. In popular and commercial terms he is among the most successful painters in the history of art…

And yet… simultaneously he has been regularly dismissed by the majority of critics as too popular, sentimental and reactionary, particularly in his choice of rural subject matter, from farming landscape to farming folk; devoid, or so it was thought, of any meaningful references to modern life. One of the canniest assessments of Andrew Wyeth was that of the late Robert Rosenblum, former Professor of Fine Arts and Curator of 20th-Century Art at the Guggenheim Museum: Wyeth was “at once the most overestimated painter by the public and most underestimated painter by the knowing art audience… a creator of very, very haunting images that nobody who hates him can get out of their minds.”

Andrew Wyeth - PhotographBut perhaps the most perceptive closing thoughts are to be found in Recalling Andy Wyeth by Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “How to die? A couple of drinks before a good dinner, asleep at 9:00 p.m. and then a quiet, who-knows-what-dreams death in his bed. 91 years old. I knew Andrew Wyeth. I interviewed him for a book, which will always stand as the most complete of his creative life. We wrote another book together.

“I admired him – but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think he gave a damn about nostalgic America; I think he was one tough, uncompromising SOB of a painter who recorded the people and places in Pennsylvania and Maine who were by and large tough SOBs themselves. Including me.

“The obits are flooding in. Virtually all say pretty much what Mike Kimmelman, the New York Times Berlin-based art reporter, says, ‘Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders.’

“But Wyeth didn’t paint a single sentimental picture in his life, starch or not. Oh, maybe one, the cloying tempera showing all his models dancing around a Maypole.

“Wyeth painted like a surgeon cuts. Crisp, flinty-eyed, completely unsentimental. The hell with the patient or the pain of recovery. What’s really there is what you see.”

Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect will be on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art through Sunday, September 17, 2017.

Just one final culinary note… Following your visit to the exhibition, Brandywine Prime, just a stone’s throw away from the museum, is the ideal spot to enjoy both happy hour and dinner.

Bon Appétit!


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