Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009

wyeth-detail

Andrew Wyeth, Winter 1946 (Detail), 1946, Tempera on board; 31 3/8 x 48 in. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina (72.1.1)

The death of Andrew Wyeth today has reminded me of a story…

I met Wyeth only once. In the mid-1980s I was working as the curator of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. Early one summer the ladies at the Museum’s reception desk fluttered into my office, whispering that Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie were in the galleries. Everyone in the building found some excuse to pass through the galleries and say hello. I too walked out and introduced myself. Jamie was smiling and gregarious, easy with a handshake, but Andrew held back, obviously uncomfortable with the attention. I offered to take them through an exhibition I had organized of contemporary Maine art. Although none of the work was sympathetic to the Wyeths’ style of realism, Andrew gave each painting a careful look. One picture absolutely delighted him. It was a large surrealist composition with floating tables and chairs and photographs seemingly taped to the canvas. The photographs and tape were actually painted illusions, but Wyeth wouldn’t believe it. Waiting until I was distracted in conversation with Jamie, he sneaked up to the painting and quietly tried to pick the tape off the canvas with his fingernail. “Well, good damn!” he giggled, amazed at being tricked. It was the unguarded giggle of child and startled me. I turned towards him. Seeing he was caught, he lowered his eyes and stepped back from the painting. Of course, I should have sent him to sit in the corner for time-out. But he was Andrew Wyeth.

Many people, including Wyeth’s biographer, have noted the man-child dimension of the artist’s personality. Sheltered and at times suffocated by his family, he never fully grew up. Imaginatively, he remained an adolescent, frightened by death and loss, rattled by sex, and compelled towards the outlaw and outcast edges of society. I would argue that it is Wyeth’s peculiar “immaturity” of┬ávision that gives his paintings that memorable jolt and separates Wyeth from his legion of weak imitators.

That said, when I am in the Museum’s galleries, standing in front of that magnificent trio of Wyeth paintings–Weatherside, Winter 1946 and Sea Dog–I still find it hard to reconcile their stark and troubling seriousness with my memory of that giddy gray-haired kid who just had to scratch a painting.

Andrew Wyeth’s Weatherside, Winter 1946 and Sea Dog are currently on view, side-by-side, in the Modern Gallery.

4 Comments

  1. Sue
    Posted January 17, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Great story, John! You’ve inspired me to create a display about Wyeth at the library where I work.

  2. Virginia Cleary
    Posted January 22, 2009 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Now THIS is what blogging should be about….. stories that have context and meaning and are well-told, but probably won’t make it into the papers. THANKS for taking the time to write this.
    Virginia

  3. Posted March 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always loved the work of Andrew Wyeth, and his father, N. C. Wyeth. I was very pleased to see the work of these artists on display recently as part of the museum collection show. I think N. C.’s “Corn Harvest on the Brandywine” is my favorite painting in the museum’s collection, but also greatly admire the very different style and artistic skill of Andrew Wyeth’s tempera paintings.

  4. Gerie Guirlinger
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Recently relocated to Raleigh from Columbus Ohio. What a great time to enter the Raleigh area with the advent of the new Museum space. We can hardly wait. Planning to be involved in Museum activities etc. We actually joined the Museum before purchasing our new home—you”gotta”have art!
    Love this online feature. Thank you.

    Wyeth work great choice for today.

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