People love Andrew Wyeth. The public, if not curators and critics, has embraced the artist’s work for seven decades now. “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect,” a large exhibition opening Saturday at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in observance of the 100th anniversary of his birth, invites us to revisit an old friend — and also to discover aspects of an artist we only think we know.
Wyeth is a paradoxical figure. He was an isolated man. Nearly all his works describe a couple of small territories — one in the Brandywine Valley, the other in coastal Maine — where he lived from 1917 until his death in 2009. The people he painted lived in falling-down houses without modern conveniences and appeared to live lives of unremitting labor and loneliness. Death lurks somewhere in nearly every picture.
Yet, largely because of the efforts of his wife and business manager, Betsy, he became one of the best-marketed artists in history, whose images have been packaged and purchased by people who rarely go to museums. He is a major reason that the Brandywine Valley is a tourism destination, and that the museum which has mounted this show (along with the Seattle Art Museum) was founded.
People used to drive to rural Maine hoping to get a glimpse of Christina Olson, the disabled figure seen crawling up the hill in Wyeth’s most renowned painting, Christina’s World. (Several paintings of Christina are in the show, including one that shows her as a fierce old woman, but the Brandywine was not able to borrow Christina’s World.)
Wyeth once said that if he were to do that painting again, he would leave Christina out. Indeed, many of the works in the show are expressions of absence. In Pentecost (1989), drying, fraying fishing nets evoke the spirit of a young woman who drowned. In Hay Ledge (1957), a boat stored in a barn permanently, and thus, uselessly, serves as a biography of Christina’s brother, who stopped fishing so he could care for her.
And in Trodden Weed (1951), a characteristically elusive self-portrait, all we see of the artist is a pair of high boots. They recall the kind of footwear worn by the pirates and swashbucklers in the melodramatic illustrations of his father and principal teacher, N.C. Wyeth, who kept an extensive collection of props and costumes. The artist stands on a piece of quintessential Wyeth ground — dusty, brown, and painstakingly painted, tangled with plants that are mostly dead but that show some promise of regeneration.
Wyeth was a sickly child and never went to school. His father saw to it that he would be a painter. The show includes some wonderful early watercolors, such as Lobsterman (Walt Anderson) (1937). They are free and fluid, spontaneous, yet totally under control. But they are not yet really Andrew Wyeths.
The artist considered the 1945 death of his father, in an accident at a railroad crossing near the family’s house, the catalyst for a change in his work. “I didn’t have much to say,” Wyeth later said in an interview quoted in the show’s catalog. “Edward Hopper had an emotional reason to paint … [Robert] Frost had a reason to write poetry. My father’s death … put me in touch with something beyond me, things to think and feel, things that meant everything to me. Then I needed to put them down as sharply as possible — with the clarity of the north wind.”
It’s interesting that he compared himself to Hopper and Frost, whose work achieved great popularity despite the frequent darkness of their feelings and bleakness of their subjects. All three, I think, are loved not because they’re lovable, but because their well-wrought works seem to offer some plain truths.
Wyeth worked primarily in tempera, an egg-based medium used by the old masters, and also in dry brush watercolor, in which water is squeezed from the brush before painting. Both these media discourage large, bold gestures. They are better suited for the accretion of fine detail. Often the most fascinating parts of his paintings are what first seem to be the empty parts, such as a patch of dirt, a bit of field, or the dark background of a portrait. These prove to be painstakingly worked, infinitely variegated, and often not strictly representational.
In Thin Ice (1969), an unusual work that has been seen only in Japan, the entire canvas is a frozen puddle, with dead leaves layered at the bottom and bubbles along the surface of the ice. It would look like a pure abstraction — if it weren’t so fiercely realistic.
The show’s curators, Patricia Junker of Seattle and Audrey Lewis of the Brandywine, point to changes in Wyeth’s interests and approach over the years, most notably the late arrival of the erotic in his work after he turned 50. The show and especially the catalog also bring a new focus to his paintings of African Americans, whom he regarded sometimes as outsiders like himself and sometimes as primitives. One of his most striking such paintings, Barracoon (1976), a female nude seen from the back, turns out to be his very white, secret model Helga Testorf, her skin darkened, supposedly to deceive Betsy.
Most unexpectedly, the curators show us an artist so impressed by a movie he saw at age 8 — King Vidor’s silent World War I epic The Big Parade — that he watched it more than 500 times and suffused some of his best-known paintings with its imagery, including Christina’s World and Winter 1946 (1946). The latter painting, which is in the exhibition, shows a boy running, off-balance, down a hill in Chadds Ford near the site of N.C. Wyeth’s death the year before.
Another intriguing subject is Karl Kuerner, Wyeth’s dairy farmer neighbor in Chadds Ford, who fought in World War I, in the German army. In the many paintings Wyeth did of him, there is almost always a hint of brutality along with enormous dignity.
Wyeth was allowed to lurk about the Kuerner house and farm at will, sketching, observing, occasionally talking. He had grown up playing with toy soldiers; Kuerner was his own real soldier, available to paint as he pleased. Wyeth said his mysterious, funereal tempera Spring (1978), which shows Kuerner, who was gravely ill, lying on the hill on his property, partly covered in snow, was inspired by one of Kuerner’s war stories.
But perhaps his greatest Kuerner painting is one where the man himself doesn’t appear. Spring Fed (1967) shows the shed where Kuerner cooled his milk with water from a natural spring. His cattle and land are glimpsed through the window. You know this isn’t just a scene on a farm; it is a meditation on life and mortality.
Wyeth acknowledged this, but he also explained it as though it were one of his father’s historical scenes. It was like the tomb of a knight, he said, with the bucket representing his discarded helmet. “I have such a strong romantic fantasy about things,” he said, “and that’s what I paint, but I come to it through realism.”
Familiar as we might be with Wyeth’s people and places, his technical mastery, and his dark weirdness, this large and excellent exhibition shows that it’s still possible to discover, and feel, something new.
Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect
On exhibit June 24-Sept. 17, Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Tickets: $18 (adults),
$15 (seniors), $6 (children and students with ID), free for children under 6 years old.
Information: 610-338-2700, www.brandywine.org/museum