Wyeth’s World

In the wake of his death, controversy still surrounds painter Andrew Wyeth’s stature as a major American artist

Artist Andrew Wyeth at the age of 66 (© Richard Schulman / Corbis)
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Andrew, the youngest child, was born with a faulty hip that caused his feet to splay out when he walked. Frequently ill, he was considered too delicate to go to school. Instead, he was educated at home by a succession of tutors and spent much of his time making drawings, playing with his collection of toy soldiers—today he has more than 2,000—and roaming the woods and fields with his friends, wearing the costumes his father used for his illustrations. According to biographer Richard Meryman in his book Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, Andrew lived in awe of his powerful, seemingly omniscient father, who was nurturing but had a volatile temper. Famously elusive and secretive as an adult, Andrew likely developed these qualities, says Meryman, as a defense against his overbearing father. “Secrecy is his key to freedom,” writes Meryman, one of the few non-family members in whom the artist has confided.

Until Andrew’s adolescence, his father provided no formal artistic instruction. NC somehow sensed a quality of imagination in his son’s drawings that he felt shouldn’t be curbed. Andrew’s last pure fantasy picture, a huge drawing of a castle with knights laying siege, impressed his father, but NC also felt that his son had reached the limit of what he could learn on his own.

On October 19, 1932, Andrew entered his father’s studio to begin academic training. He was 15 years old. By all accounts, NC’s tutorials were exacting and relentless. Andrew copied plaster casts. He made charcoal drawings of still-life arrangements, drew and redrew a human skeleton—and then drew it again, from memory. Through these and other exercises, his childhood work was tempered by solid technical mastery. “My father was a terrific technician,” says Wyeth. “He could take any medium and make the most of it. 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.” After two years of instruction, his father set him loose.

Andrew’s first notable works were watercolors of Maine that reflect the influence of Winslow Homer. Wyeth began producing them in the summer of 1936, when he was 19. Fluid and splashy, they were dashed off rapidly—he once painted eight in a single day. “You have a red-hot impression,” he has said of watercolor, “and if you can catch a moment before you begin to think, then you get something.”

“They look magnificent,” his father wrote to him of the pictures after Andrew sent a cluster of them home to Chadds Ford. “With no reservations whatsoever, they represent the very best watercolors I ever saw.” NC showed the pictures to art dealer Robert Macbeth, who agreed to exhibit them. On October 19, 1937, five years to the day after he had entered his father’s studio, Andrew Wyeth had a New York City debut. It was the heart of the Depression, but crowds packed the show, and it sold out on the second day—a phenomenal feat. At the age of 20, Andrew Wyeth had become an art world celebrity.

But Wyeth had already begun to feel that watercolor was too facile. He turned to the Renaissance method of tempera—egg yolk mixed with dry pigment—a technique he had learned from his sister Henriette’s husband, Peter Hurd, the well-known Southwestern painter. By 1938, Wyeth was devoting most of his attention to the medium. He was also gradually emerging from his father’s shadow, a process that was hastened by the arrival of a new person in his life, Betsy James.

Andrew met Betsy, whose family summered in Maine not far from the Wyeths, in 1939, and he proposed to her when they had known each other for only a week. They married in May 1940; Andrew was 22, Betsy, 18. Although not an artist herself, Betsy had grown up in a household preoccupied with art and design. Beautiful, sensitive, unconventional, intuitive and highly intelligent, she not only managed household affairs and raised their two sons—Nicholas, now an art dealer, and James (Jamie), a much-exhibited painter and watercolorist—but she also became Andrew’s protector, his model and his principal artistic guide, taking over the role his father had performed so assiduously.

Even when sales were slow, she insisted that her husband turn down commercial illustration projects and focus on painting. Betsy “made me into a painter that I would not have been otherwise,” Wyeth told Meryman. “She didn’t paint the pictures. She didn’t get the ideas. But she made me see more clearly what I wanted. She’s a terrific taskmaster. Sharp. A genius in this kind of thing. Jesus, I had a severe training with my father, but I had a more severe training with Betsy....Betsy galvanized me at the time I needed it.”

Andrew needed Betsy’s support, for his father did not approve of his subdued, painstaking temperas. “Can’t you add some color to it?” NC asked about one of them. He was particularly disparaging about Andrew’s 1942 tempera of three buzzards soaring over Chadds Ford. “Andy, that doesn’t work,” he said. “That’s not a painting.” Discouraged, Andrew put the painting in his basement, where his sons used it to support a model train set. Only years later, at the insistence of his friend, dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, did he return to it. He finished the work, titled Soaring, in 1950; it was exhibited at Robert Macbeth’s gallery that same year.

By 1945, NC—then 63 and shaken by World War II and what he called “the lurid threads of the world’s dementia”—was losing confidence in himself as a painter. He became moody and depressed. Brightening his colors and flirting with different styles didn’t seem to help. He became more and more dependent on Andrew, relying on him for encouragement and support.

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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