Magical & Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd, A Retrospective, James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

by artfuldiner on April 16, 2018

in Uncategorized

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No family name is more closely associated with 20th century American art than Wyeth… N.C. (Newell Convers), Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth spark immediate recognition. On the other hand, Henriette Wyeth (1907- 1997) – daughter, sister, and aunt, respectively – is less well known; but she is certainly no less remarkable.

Magical & Real, co-organized by the James A. Michener Art Museum and the Roswell Museum and Arts Center, Roswell, New Mexico, is a major retrospective that examines Henriette (pronounced, as her father insisted, “the French way: on-ri-ETTE.”) Wyeth’s career with paintings dating from the 1920s to the 1970s; it also explores the career of her husband, Peter Hurd (1904-1984). The exhibition, which features over 100 paintings, most of which have been in private collections since they were created and thus have not been viewed in in public before, is the first joint retrospective of Wyeth and Hurd’s work since 1967 and the first scholarly exhibition to seriously consider the work of either artist in thirty years. Above all, Magical & Real will introduce visitors to the major artistic accomplishments of the woman of whom her brother, Andrew Wyeth, remarked in a 1980 interview: “She is the best painter of us all.”

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Henriette contracted polio at age 3, which altered her health and the use of her right hand. As a result, she learned to draw with her left hand and paint with her right. At the age of 11, she began formal art lessons with her father, immersing herself in charcoal studies and geometric shapes. A child prodigy, at the age of 13, she was enrolled in the Normal Arts School in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1921, she entered the Boston Museum of Art Academy; and two years later began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Although acclaimed for her striking portraitures of adults and children – the official White House portrait of First Lady Pat Nixon being her most widely known work – I found her still lifes and floral landscapes marvelously intriguing; this is especially true of her meticulously conceived and executed Music Box, noted above.

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Her early Fantasies, on the other hand – particularly Drowned Girl, Death and the Child, and Farewell to Youth, though beautifully executed, are not only haunting… they’re downright scary. Of course, her marriage to Peter Hurd in 1929, and her subsequent move to New Mexico in 1940, had a profound effect on her artistic perspective. Once settled permanently into her new home near Roswell, she was, apparently, ready to let go of the fantasies, which she described as “a retreat into a kind of world that was, perhaps, not very wholesome.” However, when she was told of her father’s tragic death on October 19, 1945 – hit by a train while in a car with his 3-year-old grandson – she immediately began to paint Iris, almost as a form of therapy. Incredibly realistic, at first glance the painting is just flowers… but, looking more closely, it seems to possess the very same ecstatic other-worldly aura as those disquieting fantasies.


Hurd, Peter - Self PortraitPeter Hurd (self-portrait), a native of Roswell, New Mexico, attended West Point and Haverford College and later studied with N.C. Wyeth in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. It was during this period that he met Henriette, whom he later married. Throughout most of his career, he was the better-known artist, both for his depictions of the impressive vistas and rolling hills of the Southwest and for cover portraits and other works he did for Time, Life, and other magazines. In addition to portraits and landscapes, during World War II, Life magazine sent Hurd all over the world as a combat correspondent with the US Air Force. He covered almost all the battle fronts, creating hundreds of war sketches.  Hurd also painted the official portraits of two heads of state, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Saudi King Faisal. LBJ famously rejected the 1967 Hurd portrait, for reasons unknown. The painting is now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution.

Interestingly enough, it was Hurd who had a significant artistic influence upon N.C. and Andrew Wyeth’s technique, introducing them to tempera, which became Andrew’s medium of choice. (Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of colored pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually glutinous material such as egg yolk.)

Hurd, Peter - El MochoMagical & Real is organized as one show following another: first Wyeth, and then (as one art critic noted), “somewhat less interestingly, Hurd.” And, I must confess, after Wyeth’s striking portraits, fantasies, and still lifes, Hurd’s landscapes and military/combat scenes seemed something of a letdown…

Hurd, Peter - Eve of Saint John… Not so his portraits, however.  Many of Peter Hurd’s most interesting subjects were his neighbors, family and friends, people deeply connected to the land… and he always portrayed them against the background of the southwestern hills and sky. Hurd once wrote: “… the ones I like best to paint are those whose lives are spent under the sky: Men whose clothing, skin and eyes are all conditioned by the wind.” Of particular note is his portrait of a ranch hand, El Mocho (pictured above), on loan from the Chicago Institute of Art, filled with a slightly menacing coiled energy. But his most striking work, in my opinion, is his Eve of Saint John, depicting Dorothea Herrera, daughter of Hurd’s foreman at his Sentinel Ranch, bathed in the soft light of the candle she carries on June 23rd, the eve of the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist.

Magical & Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd, A Retrospective, which opened on January 21st, will be on view through Sunday, May 6, 2018.

And if you’re searching for a suitable restaurant in the area, I highly recommend Ristorante Il Melograno, a charming BYOB conveniently located just a little over a mile from the Michener Museum.

Bon Appétit!


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