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Artist Andrew Wyeth at the age of 66 (© Richard Schulman / Corbis)

Wyeth's World

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

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On the morning of October 19, 1945, NC was on an outing with his namesake, 3-year-old Newell Convers Wyeth, the child of his oldest son, Nathaniel. At a railroad crossing by the farm of a neighbor, Karl Kuerner, the car NC was driving stopped while straddling the tracks—no one knows why. A mail train from Philadelphia plowed into it, killing NC instantly and hurling little Newell onto the cinder embankment. He died of a broken neck.

After that, Andrew’s work became deeper, more serious, more intense. “It gave me a reason to paint, an emotional reason,” he has said. “I think it made me.” One day, walking close to the tracks where his father was killed, he spotted Allan Lynch, a local boy, running down the hill facing the Kuerner farm. Wyeth joined him. The two found an old baby carriage, climbed into it together, and rolled down the hill, both of them laughing hysterically. The incident inspired Wyeth’s 1946 painting Winter, which depicts Lynch running down the hill, chased by his shadow. “The boy was me at a loss, really,” he told Meryman. “His hand, drifting in the air, was my hand, groping, my free soul.”

In the painting, the hill is rendered with tiny, meticulous, but also strangely unpredictable, strokes, anticipating the hill that Wyeth would portray two years later in Christina’s World. In Winter, Wyeth has said, the hill became the body of his father. He could almost feel it breathe.

In 1950, two years after he painted Christina’s World, Wyeth was diagnosed with bronchiectasis, a potentially fatal disease of the bronchial tubes. Most of a lung had to be removed. During the operation, Wyeth’s heart began to fail, and he later reported having had a vision in which he saw one of his artistic heroes, the 15th-century painter Albrecht Dürer, walk toward him with his hand extended, as if summoning him. In his vision, Wyeth started toward his hero, and then pulled back as Dürer withdrew.

The operation severed the muscles in Wyeth’s shoulder, and although he eventually recovered, it was unclear for a time whether he would paint again. During weeks of recuperation, he took long walks through the winter fields, wearing a pair of old boots that had once belonged to artist Howard Pyle, his father’s teacher and mentor.

Trodden Weed, which Wyeth painted several weeks after the surgery—his hand supported by a sling suspended from the ceiling—depicts a pair of French cavalier boots in full stride across a landscape. The painting is both a kind of self-portrait and a meditation on the precariousness of life. Wyeth has said that the painting reflects a collection of highly personal feelings and memories—of the charismatic Pyle, whose work greatly influenced both Wyeth and his father, of Wyeth’s childhood, when he dressed up as characters from NC’s and Pyle’s illustrations, and of the vision of death as it appeared to him in the figure of Dürer, striding confidently across the landscape.

By the time of his rehabilitation, Wyeth had achieved a signature look and a distinctive personal approach, finding nearly all of his subjects within a mile or so of the two towns in which he lived—Chadds Ford, where he still spends winters, and Cushing, Maine, where he goes in the summer. “I paint the things I know best,” he has said. Many of his most memorable paintings of the 1960s and ’70s, in fact, focus on just two subjects—the Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford (owned by German immigrant Karl Kuerner and his mentally unbalanced wife, Anna) and the Olson house in Cushing, inhabited by crippled Christina and her brother, Alvaro.

During the 1940s and ’50s, Wyeth was encouraged by two notable supporters of the avant-garde, Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who purchased, and promoted, Christina’s World, and painter and art critic Elaine de Kooning, the wife of renowned Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning.

In 1950, writing in ARTnews, Elaine de Kooning praised Wyeth as a “master of the magic-realist technique.” Without “tricks of technique, sentiment or obvious symbolism,” she wrote, “Wyeth, through his use of perspective, can make a prosperous farmhouse kitchen, or a rolling pasture as bleak and haunting as a train whistle in the night.” That same year, Wyeth was lauded, along with Jackson Pollock, in Time and ARTnews, as one of the greatest American artists. But as the battle lines between realism and abstraction were drawn more rigidly in the mid-1960s, he was increasingly castigated as old-fashioned, rural, reactionary and sentimental. The 1965 ordination of Wyeth by Life magazine as “America’s preeminent artist” made him an even larger target. “The writers who were defending abstraction,” says the Philadelphia Museum’s Kathleen Foster, “needed someone to attack.” Envy may also have played a part. In 1959 Wyeth sold his painting Groundhog Day to the Philadelphia Museum for $31,000, the largest sum that a museum had ever paid for a work by a living American painter; three years later he set another record when he sold That Gentleman to the Dallas Museum of Art for $58,000.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Wyeth kept up a steady stream of major paintings—landscapes of fir trees and glacial boulders, studies of an 18th-century mill in Chadds Ford and, above all, likenesses of people he knew well, such as his longtime friend Maine fisherman Walt Anderson and his Pennsylvania neighbors Jimmy and Johnny Lynch.

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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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