Andrew Wyeth

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a 1964 AP file photo of Wyeth standing in front of his Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, farm
Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting, Christina's World, shows a disabled Maine neighbor who drags herself through a field toward her house in the distance - it is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Andrew Newell Wyeth (12 July 1917 - 16 January 2009)

Born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Wyeth was the youngest of five children born to Carolyn Bockius Wyeth and N. C. Wyeth was home-schooled because of his health. When he was a teen he formally studied art with his father. He was the brother of inventor Nathaniel Wyeth and artist Henriette Wyeth Hurd.

In a memoir, Andrew Wyeth, Autobiography (1995), he described that, like his father, he appreciated the work of Frost and Thoreau because of their relationship with nature. The Wyeths were Unitarians.

In 1940 he married Betsy James and they had two children, Nicholas and James ("Jamie").

In 1948 he began painting two of his neighbors in Chadds Ford, Anna and Karl Kuerner, who appear in his works.

According to a biography in the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine, he drew in charcoal and painted in oils, "the media of choice for N. C. Wyeth. It was during the family's annual summer vacations in Port Clyde, Maine, that Andrew was able to experiment with other media to find his own artistic voice."

Known as a watercolorist who also worked in tempera, he was awarded a Presidential Award by President John F. Kennedy. In 1970 he was honored with the first one-man show in the White House, then President Richard Nixon toasting him at a dinner as the man "who has caught the heart of America."

Wyeth said then that he stood for something “discarded in the American country. I have an American viewpoint,” according to a 1970 biographical sketch by the Associated Press. “I don’t consider myself a realist,” Wyeth said of his work. “I suppose you could call it surrealism. I paint what I feel strongly about.” Some critics, however, called him a facile realist, not an artist but merely an illustrator.

In 2007, his Ericksons sold for a record $10.3 million at auction.

Known by family and friends as "Andy," he painted until the end of his life. Wyeth, 91, died in his sleep.

Criticism

Wyeth has been both praised and doubted. Larry Rohter in The New York Times (17 Jan 2009) has written that upon Wyeth's death not only did many in the art world rush to praise Wyeth "as one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century" but also plenty of others "lumped him with Norman Rockwell as a mere illustrator, and dismissed his most famous painting, Christina's World, as a "mandatory dorm room poster."

Michael Kimmelman wrote

  • Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders. A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century, Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as, and probably even more so than, any other American painter including the other modern Andy, Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Wyeth’s was rural.
  • Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Wyeth came to represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject, so that arguments about his work extended beyond painting to societal splits along class, geographical and educational lines. One art historian, in response to a 1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, nominated Wyeth for both categories.
  • Art critics mostly heaped abuse on his work, saying he gave realism a bad name. Supporters said he spoke to the silent majority who jammed his exhibitions. “In today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wild-eyed radical,” one journalist wrote in 1963, speaking for the masses. “For the people he paints wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality.”

Rachel Campbell Johnson in London's Times wrote

  • When it came to the art of Andrew Wyeth, you didn't have to worry about all that modern stuff. That was undoubtedly part of his immense popularity. He left the Abstract Expressionists to their pioneering struggles and stuck to painting his precisely realistic views, in which you could count every blade of grass on the rippling prairie expanses, see every stark twig on the leafless tree.
  • You couldn't miss the point. His bleak portraits of a barren country spoke with harsh force of a bygone American age. This was the man who painted the tough, puritanical world of the nation's early pioneers: their wooden houses and dry prairies, empty barns and circling buzzards. This was the patriot who spoke of the lives of struggle and desolation, of suffering and bravery upon which God's own country had been built.
  • His most famous painting, Christina's World, in which a crippled woman crawls alone through desolate corn fields, has become an iconic image. He might have called it a “flat tyre of a painting” but to hundreds of thousands it spoke of the solitude and silence and hard scrabble of life. “Oftentimes people will like a picture I paint because it's maybe the sun hitting on the side of a window and they can enjoy it purely for itself,” he once said.
  • Of course, he came under critical attack. His work has been dismissed as illustrative, formulaic and sentimental. All of those criticisms are to a great extent true. He was not an experimental artist, for all that some writers tried to emphasise the abstract spaces of his work.
  • Wyeth would, no doubt, have shrugged this off. He had a personality too overblown for criticism to dent.Yet, at their most unnerving, his works have a haunting austerity, they speak of a spirit of restraint which feels increasingly alien in our let-it-all-hang-out society. His death will offer a timely opportunity for a broader reappraisal of his dark and often misanthropic vision and what it has to say of the society to which it speaks so clearly.