Andrew Wyeth, RIP
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist
The popular artist who painted the American psyche
Andrew Wyeth was probably the only painter who was a favorite of both Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President Richard Nixon. One of the modern art world’s best known and polarizing figures, he was beloved by the public for iconic works that depicted the bleak beauty and submerged suffering of rural America. Highbrow professionals, however, dismissed him as middle-class and simplistic. Wyeth, who died last week at 91, defied categorization. “What you have to do,” he once said, “is break all the rules.”
Artistically and literally, Wyeth never moved far from his birthplace in Chadds Ford, Pa., said the Los Angeles Times. Much of his life was spent in “aimless roaming about the countryside,” sketching the hills, trees, farms, and people. At his first New York show, when he was only 20, “all 23 watercolors sold by the second day.” Wyeth later dismissed his early landscape technique as “lots of swish and swash.” However when his father, the celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, was killed in a freak train accident in 1945, the young artist found that “the landscape took on a meaning—the quality of him.” Soon the younger Wyeth was working in egg-white-based tempera, which yields a matte-like effect.
For Wyeth, said The Washington Post, the soft, pale tones of that medium “gave the impression of a deeper and unarticulated meaning.” Such was the case with his most famous painting, Christina’s World (below), “which shows a young crippled woman in a pink dress crawling across a brown field toward a bleak and distant farmhouse. In its degree of familiarity, the picture was once compared with the portrait of George Washington on the $1 bill.”
Equally powerful was Groundhog Day (below), a 1959 tempera depicting the apparently peaceful kitchen of a neighbor’s home. Only when one notices the table set with a knife but no fork, and the view through the window of a barbed-wire fence and sawed logs, do “subliminal suggestions of violence and decay and a sense of loss” begin to register.
Such work brought Wyeth acclaim, wealth, and widespread recognition, said The Philadelphia Inquirer. Among his many honors were a Harvard honorary degree in 1955 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. “But being popular was a mixed blessing.” Amid the riotous colors and patterns of postwar abstract expressionism, many experts “considered him an illustrator, rather than a major artist. His work was often characterized as sentimental, the critical kiss of death.” Hilton Kramer once declared, “In my opinion, he can’t paint.” Historian Paul Johnson, by contrast, called Wyeth “the only narrative artist of genius during the second half of the 20th century.” Rarely did the artist himself weigh in. “Everything I have to say,” he once remarked, “is on the walls.”
“Tight-lipped” though Wyeth generally was, said The New York Times, he wasn’t above self-promotion. This was especially true when 240 previously unexhibited Wyeths—depicting “a woman, nude and clothed, named Helga Testorf”—came to light in 1986. “Wyeth had been painting her for more than a decade without his wife’s knowledge, his wife, Betsy, said. When asked what the pictures were about, Mrs. Wyeth fueled prurient speculation by saying, ‘Love.’” Following a storm of publicity, and a retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, the Helgas fetched a reported $45 million, prompting charges of “profiteering.” Only then did Wyeth deny any affair and his wife admit “that in fact she had seen a few of the works before.”
Wyeth’s greatest critic was probably himself. “I think the great weakness in most of my work is subject matter,” he once said. “There’s too much of it.” Another time, he doused a finished portrait with water. When an onlooker asked, “It was beautiful—why did you do that?” he responded, “That’s the trouble. It was too beautiful.” He is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1940, and two sons.