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At 100, Andrew Wyeth Still Brushes People the Right (and Wrong) Way

The centennial of his birth offers galleries and critics the opportunity to reconsider one of America’s most famous painters

"Dodge's Ridge" (Andrew Wyeth / Smithsonian American Art Museum)
smithsonian.com

This year, the art world is celebrating the 100th birthday of Andrew Wyeth. Dubbed "America's preeminent artist" before even reaching age 50 by LIFE magazine, Wyeth, who died in 2009, was beloved by his fans for his intimate, realistic brush strokes that captured rural life in America.

Fittingly, a retrospective of Wyeth's long career recently opened at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in his native Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. According to Tim Higgins at The Morning Call, "Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect," organized by the Brandywine and the Seattle Art Museum, took four-and-a-half years to put together, and is the largest exhibition in the museum's history. 

It's also the first retrospective of Wyeth since his death, Higgins reports. The exhibit shows how he evolved as an artist over the course of seven decades of painting, moving from the budding young son of influential illustrator N.C. Wyeth to a man who often pushed back against being labeled as another realist painter.

"My people, my objects, breathe in a different way," Wyeth told LIFE in 1965. “[T]here’s another core—an excitement that’s definitely abstract.”

Throughout his life, he courted widespread popular acclaim (Wyeth became the first painter to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963), but also faced widespread skepticism from the art community, with many calling his work stale and hollow. Infamously, art critic Dave Hickey went as far as to comment that Wyeth's palette was made up of “mud and baby poop.”

Undeterred, Wyeth soldiered on, often stating simply: "I paint my life." A big part of that life was his only grandchild, Victoria Wyeth, who recalls him as a doting grandfather with a contagious laugh, reports Donna Walker for USA TODAY.

“We’ve established what a fabulous painter he is,” she recently told Cindy Landrum of the Greenville Journal. “But he was just as wonderful a person.”

Though Wyeth's granddaughter claims she doesn't share her famous relation's talent with the brush, she does have an interest in photography, which she took up as a teenager. She's captured many candid and intimate photographers of her grandfather over the last two decades of his life, and those photographs are now on display in the exhibit "My Andy" at the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina.

While Wyeth remains a polarizing figure in the art world, some have come around to his work. “There has been a real undercurrent of re-evaluation,” art historian John Wilmerding told Bob Keyes of the Press-Herald earlier this year. “There are still critics, but I think this moment for a new sense of balance is the stronger current.”

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