In the shadow of Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth’s famous “Christina’s World” (1948) is now featured on one of 12 U.S. stamps issued on July 12 to commemorate the centenary of Wyeth’s birth.

It was not uncommon to see him — face deeply lined, blue eyes still startlingly bright — at the local diner that was no more than a half-mile away from his home (and a mile away from mine) in Chadds Ford.

I would be sitting with my girls, then around 10 and 12, each preoccupied with her phone, maybe a book. I had just picked them up from a grueling winter swim practice. Their hair was still wet as they picked at their turkey platters and I my spanakopita, engaging in the ritual silence between preteen girls and their mother.

Then he would shuffle in, always with a female companion, always greeted warmly by the busboy and a few of the more veteran waitresses. My first thought would always be “Oh, another regular.” Even after years of living in the same area I could never get used to the idea that I was among an artistic giant. Then it would hit me, and brimming with excitement I would lean forward and exclaim to the girls in hushed tones, “Do you know who that is?!”

They would look up (maybe) and, if they were in a particularly forgiving mood, halfheartedly turn and look at the old man being seated behind them, offering a shrug.

“That’s Andrew Wyeth.”

They would roll their eyes and return to their platters, unfazed by their proximity to a great influencer of American Art. I would lean back and sigh, wondering how he and I both ended up in this once-rural hamlet outside Philadelphia.

“Evening at Kuerners” is among the works featured in the exhibit “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” at the Brandywine River Museum of Art through September.

July 12 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wyeth, who died in 2009. After such a long and distinguished career, his mark on the global artistic lexicon is both far-reaching and minute. Say his name, for instance, and you might draw the same blank stare I used to get when I asked my daughters about their day at school. His work, however, is instantly recognizable. Christina’s World, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, has been parodied everywhere from The Simpsons to Mad magazine. His palette — drawn undoubtedly from the place we both called home — a mixture of neutral matte grays and browns, acts as a fingerprint of sorts for his work, and the inspiration for films such as Days of Heaven and The Village.

Jarvis painted a version of the Kuerner’s farm, made famous by Andrew Wyeth, for a juried plein air competition hosted by the Chadds Fords Historical Society in early March.

Locally, however, the Wyeth influence runs an even deeper current.

His arrival in Chadds Ford can be described either as destiny or the happenstance of birth. Son of prominent illustrator and artist N.C. Wyeth, Andrew was the youngest of five children, all of whom were artistically inclined. With his father as his primary teacher, Wyeth would approach painting with the same vigor with which men such as Tolstoy or Thoreau — whom N.C. deemed “great” — tackled their own work. Yet more notable than either Wyeth’s fame for painting was the lifelong dedication this family showed toward the region they occupied. The Brandywine River Museum serves as the crown jewel of this influence. It features mainly the work of Wyeths — as well as artists who preceded them and those who follow in their footsteps. Local galleries follow suit, taking in work often stylized in a way that is distinctly “Wyeth.”

As a painter myself, the pressure of Wyeth’s looming artistic presence became all the greater when I moved to his hometown in 2002. Picked for its proximity to my husband’s work and the wide open spaces that provided plenty of opportunity for plein air, Chadds Ford as the longtime home of Andrew was a pleasant footnote, a neat piece of trivia. As time went on and I integrated more wholly into the artistic community of the Brandywine Valley — a movement in and of itself — my relationship with the Wyeth legacy became more complicated, strained.

While it was positive for the region to be the home of such a notable artist, it became increasingly hard to distinguish oneself from his influence. This, coupled with the commercialization of Andrew’s work — in reproductions, blankets, mousepads — and the promotion of the area itself, littered with wineries, bed-and-breakfasts, and strip malls, fostered a painful banality, an uncanny valley of artistic imitation. It also fostered an expectation of style similar to Wyeth.

The Chadds Ford Gallery, run by Barbara Moore and Jackie Winther, felt like a sanctuary because they took a chance on my moody urban scenes featuring bright yellow taxi cabs. While exhibiting a more abstract and impressionistic forest landscape, I overheard a passerby say that he didn’t like the piece because the trees weren’t defined and didn’t have enough branches. I doubt it was specifically the lack of branches that soured this individual on my piece, but rather the lack of exposure to work outside Wyeth’s particular brand of regionalism. This is not to say Wyeth wasn’t preternaturally talented (he was) or that people aren’t entitled to their own artistic opinions (they most certainly are). Rather, it is to say that living in the shadow of a giant can be, I found, artistically isolating and stylistically stifling. For many years, I could not paint outside the comparison with Andrew Wyeth.

Now I live 45 minutes away from Chadds Ford, and it has been eight years since Andrew Wyeth died. With this distance, both geographically and in time, I’ve been able to step out of the wide shadow he cast. It’s only from here that I can truly appreciate the genius that he was and the heights he reached, and understand his influence not only on my work, but also on the diaspora of rural Pennsylvania painters and artists around the world.

Judy McCabe Jarvis is an artist in Flourtown.