Editor's Note, January 16, 2009: In the wake of Andrew Wyeth's death at the age of 91, Smithsonian magazine recalls the 2006 major retrospective of Wyeth's work and the ongoing controversy over his artistic legacy.
In the summer of 1948 a young artist named Andrew Wyeth began a painting of a severely crippled woman, Christina Olson, painfully pulling herself up a seemingly endless sloping hillside with her arms. For months Wyeth worked on nothing but the grass; then, much more quickly, delineated the buildings at the top of the hill. Finally, he came to the figure itself. Her body is turned away from us, so that we get to know her simply through the twist of her torso, the clench of her right fist, the tension of her right arm and the slight disarray of her thick, dark hair. Against the subdued tone of the brown grass, the pink of her dress feels almost explosive. Wyeth recalls that, after sketching the figure, “I put this pink tone on her shoulder—and it almost blew me across the room.”
Finishing the painting brought a sense of fatigue and let-down. When he was done, Wyeth hung it over the sofa in his living room. Visitors hardly glanced at it. In October, when he shipped the painting to a New York City gallery, he told his wife, Betsy, “This picture is a complete flat tire.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong. Within a few days, whispers about a remarkable painting were circulating in Manhattan. Powerful figures of finance and the art world quietly dropped by the gallery, and within weeks the painting had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). When it was hung there in December 1948, thousands of visitors related to it in a personal way, and perhaps somewhat to the embarrassment of the curators, who tended to favor European modern art, it became one of the most popular works in the museum. Thomas Hoving, who would later become director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recalls that as a college student he would sometimes visit the MoMA for the sole purpose of studying this single painting. Within a decade or so the museum had banked reproduction fees amounting to hundreds of times the sum—$1,800—they had paid to acquire the picture. Today the painting’s value is measured in the millions. At age 31, Wyeth had accomplished something that eludes most painters, even some of the best, in an entire lifetime. He had created an icon—a work that registers as an emotional and cultural reference point in the minds of millions. Today Christina’s World is one of the two or three most familiar American paintings of the 20th century. Only Grant Wood, in American Gothic, and Edward Hopper, in one or two canvases such as House by the Railroad or Nighthawks, have created works of comparable stature.
More than half a century after he painted Christina’s World, Wyeth is the subject of a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first major retrospective of the artist’s work in 30 years, the exhibition, on display through July 16, was co-organized with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where it opened in November 2005. A concurrent exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum in Wyeth’s hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, featuring drawings from the artist’s own collection, is also on view through July 16.
The title of the Philadelphia exhibition, “Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic,” alludes not only to the first major exhibition in which Wyeth was included, the “Magic Realism” show of 1943 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but also to the importance of magic and memory in his work. “Magic! It’s what makes things sublime,” the artist has said. “It’s the difference between a picture that is profound art and just a painting of an object.” Anne Classen Knutson, who served as curator of the exhibition at the High Museum, says that Wyeth’s “paintings of objects are not straightforward illustrations of his life. Rather, they are filled with hidden metaphors that explore common themes of memory, nostalgia and loss.”
Over a career that has spanned seven decades, Wyeth, now 88 and still painting, has produced a wealth of technically stunning paintings and drawings that have won him a huge popular following and earned him a considerable fortune. But widespread acceptance among critics, art historians and museum curators continues to elude him, and his place in history remains a matter of intense debate. In 1977, when art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked to name both the most overrated and underrated artist of the century, he nominated Andrew Wyeth for both categories. That divergence of opinion persists. Some see Wyeth as a major figure. Paul Johnson, for example, in his book Art: A New History, describes him as “the only narrative artist of genius during the second half of the twentieth century.” Others, however, decline even to mention Wyeth in art history surveys. Robert Storr, the former curator of painting at MoMA, is openly hostile to his work, and Christina’s World is pointedly omitted from the general handbook of the museum’s masterworks.
The current exhibition has only stirred the debate. “The museum is making a statement by giving Wyeth this exhibition,” says Kathleen Foster, the Philadelphia Museum’s curator of American art. “So I think it’s clear that we think he’s worth this big survey. The show aims to give viewers a new and deeper understanding of Wyeth’s creative method and his accomplishment.”
Andrew Wyeth was born in Chadds Ford in 1917, the fifth child of artist NC Wyeth and his wife, Carolyn Bockius. One of the most notable American illustrators of his generation, NC produced some 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books, including such classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Boy’s King Arthur.
With a $500 advance from Scribner’s for his illustrations for Treasure Island, NC made a down payment on 18 acres of land in Chadds Ford, on which he built a house and studio. As his illustrations gained in popularity, he acquired such trappings of wealth as a tennis court, a Cadillac and a butler. Ferociously energetic and a chronic meddler, NC attempted to create a family life as studiously as a work of art, carefully nurturing the special talents of each of his children. Henriette, the eldest, became a gifted still-life and portrait artist; Nathaniel became a mechanical engineer for DuPont; Ann became an accomplished musician and composer; Carolyn became a painter.