Review of 'Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life.' | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Review of 'Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life.'

Review of 'Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life.'

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Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life
Richard Meryman
HarperCollins

Andrew Wyeth, arguably America's best-known living artist, is at once our most popular and most denigrated painter. For a half-century, his spare and luminous evocations of rural Pennsylvania and coastal Maine have attracted an enormous public following, even as art establishment critics have routinely condemned his work as reactionary and out of step with contemporary trends.

The widely divergent views of Wyeth, combined with his complicated persona and reclusive ways, make him a challenging subject. Fortunately, Richard Meryman brings special strengths to this first comprehensive examination of the artist's life.

The son of a painter — his father was principal of the Corcoran Gallery of Art school when Richard was born in Washington, D.C. 70 years ago — Meryman was a top writer for the original Life magazine before becoming a freelance writer in 1972. He and Wyeth hit it off when he profiled the painter for Life in 1964, and Wyeth subsequently chose Meryman to be his biographer.

Accepted into the Wyeth family inner circle, Meryman over three decades accumulated a large trove of astoundingly candid comments from the artist's redoubtable wife and two sons, his gifted siblings, and numerous friends, neighbors and models. Having absorbed Wyeth's deepest feelings and ideas, and the memories, anxieties and passions that have animated his life and art, the author has succeeded in creating an intimate and vivid portrait of an artist at work.

Raised in a lively household where imagination and creativity were encouraged, Wyeth was deeply influenced by his domineering father, N.C. Wyeth, the great illustrator. A sickly child tutored at home, Andrew was unusually close to his talented, driven father who, says Meryman, became "his role model," although he "swore never to be like him." N.C.'s tragic death at age 63, when a train hit his stalled car at a crossing, stimulated greater seriousness in his son's art and has haunted him ever since.

Central to Andrew Wyeth's saga are two larger-than-life figures: his father, whom he worshiped and feared, and his wife, Betsy, a formidable woman indeed. The fascinating cast of characters also includes a number of individuals familiar to those who know Wyeth's work: the indomitable, crippled Maine woman, Christina Olson, heroine of Christina's World; the artist's close friend, alcoholic Maine fisherman Walt Anderson; and his Pennsylvania neighbors, the brooding German-born farmer Karl Kuerner and his wife, Anna, who would grow increasingly deranged over the years. "I'm involved with the people I paint. They become my friends," Wyeth says of those who pose for him. "They're not people I paint and send home."

Meryman devotes much attention to the depictions of Helga Testorf, the German-refugee neighbor in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, whom Wyeth painted secretly for 15 years before creating a sensation when he unveiled the series to his wife and the public.

Meryman explores the secrecy surrounding the series, the complicity of family members who kept Betsy in the dark, the reason the pictures were finally revealed, Betsy's ambivalent reactions, and Wyeth's disappointment at the barrage of bad reviews that greeted the series at the National Gallery of Art in 1987. Critics not only questioned the quality of his work but speculated about whether he and his model had had an affair, and whether the artist's wife was really unaware of what was going on.

Meryman's comprehensive examination of the circumstances surrounding the Helga suite is convincingly credible, making it plain that those who said "the whole event was a hoax concocted by Andrew and Betsy to boost sales" were wrong.

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