Interview on the Legacy of Andrew Wyeth

Henry Adams, author of "Wyeth's World," speaks with the artist about his early work, influences and technique.

What has been the response to this exhibition?

The director of the Philadelphia Museum tells me that when she goes into the gallery there's utter silence. Like a church. They're really looking. I get letters from people about my work. The thing that pleases me most is that my work touches their feelings. In fact, they don't talk about the paintings. They end up telling me the story of their life or how their father died.

What does it feel like for you to look over 70 years of work?

When I made these paintings I was lost in trying to capture these moments and emotions that were taking place. It's a shock for me to go through and see all those years of painting my life, which is very personal for me. It's a very difficult thing for an artist to look back at his work. If it's personal it touches all these emotions.

I'm shocked when I see my early work. At the show in Wilmington I saw the painting Tenant Farmer. Its solidity impressed me. You think you're developing and getting better and then you see something you did years ago. Looking at your early work—sometimes it has a depth that surprises you.

When I'm working, I often put a painting upside down. Does it hold its own in terms of texture and weight?—forget the subject.

How have you been influenced by modern art?

I have been perfectly natural in my development. I haven't gone to some show in New York and been influenced. I have never really sat down and looked at abstractions. I was dripping paint in a Jackson Pollock way—but it was a natural feeling for me. They say I was influenced by John Marin, but Christ, I was painting like that before I ever saw a Marin. In the catalogue one of the writers said that I was influenced by the Philadelphia painters, but that's not true at all.I thought they were stupid.

I was influenced by Winslow Homer.He influenced me to be freer with watercolor.

What were the early influences on your work?

When I was young I did quite a number of years of pen drawing. I looked at Durer—and I looked at my father's teacher, Howard Pyle, who studied Durer very closely. That's when I became interested in textures.

What about the effect of your father?

My father had an American freshness that must have been a shock to Howard Pyle. My father was a terrific technician. He could take any medium and make the most of it—he sensed the beauty of every medium. Once I was making a watercolor of some trees. I had made a very careful drawing and I was just filling in the lines. He came along and looked at it and said, "Andy, you've got to free yourself." Then he took a brush and filled it with paint and made this sweeping brushstroke. I learned more then from a few minutes of watching what he did than I've ever learned from anything since.

Your dry-brush watercolors have an amazing amount of detail. How do you achieve this?

I was influenced by the watercolors of Albrecht Durer. I was interested in the rabbit that he did, and the deer's head with the arrow through the eye. Some of them… Well, I consider him the greatest watercolorist of animals. It made me realize that watercolor could be pushed further and further.

I don't start off a dry-brush trying to do a dry-brush. That's not the way it happens. There's a watery structure underneath. Then you see a rock or a branch of a tree and you try to develop it a little further. It's a very tricky medium. If you just set out to do a dry-brush it becomes very dead. The best dry-brush just happens.

Of course your most famous bit of painting is that field of grass in Christina's World.

When I was painting Christina's World I would sit there by the hours working on the grass and I began to feel I was really out in the field. I got lost in the texture of the thing. I remember going down into the field and grabbing up a section of earth and setting it on the base of my easel. It wasn't a painting I was working on. I was actually working on the ground itself.

It's curious that your temperas, which seem so realistic, aren't made in front of the object but from imagination.

The temperas are mostly done in the studio although with Roasted Chestnuts I took the panel and worked on its outdoors. I remember talking with the actor Claude Raines, who told me that he had his wife come every three or four days to his performances and she would tell him if he was over-acting. As he said: "She'd bring me back to truth." We all tend to formalize after we do a thing for a while. I feel sometimes my technique is taking over. I need to go back to truth.

The simplicity of your work often has an Oriental quality, like a Japanese brush painting.

I've never studied the Japanese. That's something that must have crept in there. But the Japanese are my biggest clients. They seem to like the elemental quality.

What do you think about your place in the contemporary art world?

There's a wonderful line in a film with Errol Flynn called The Sea Hawk. He's cut the line of the ship and one of the captains senses that something is wrong and says: "There's a change in the weather. We must get out of here." It turns out that those lines were written by William Faulkner.

I think there is a sea change. I really do. It's subtle but it's happening.

Lincoln Kirstein [the founder of the New York City Ballet] wrote me several times saying: "You just keep on. You're way ahead." I like to think that I'm so far behind that I'm ahead.

About Henry Adams
Henry Adams

Henry Adams is a contributor to Smithsonian magazine and a Professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University.

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