Judging Wyeth

For more than 70 years, his work has pleased regular folks and divided critics.

Photo by Bruce Weber

Andrew Wyeth was not like you and me. When we were young and thought life would go on forever, we squandered our time on videogames or cartoons. Wyeth painted. When we realized that our names were also on death’s list, we wallowed in pick-your-decade nostalgia. Wyeth painted. When we got bored with the spouse, we … Well, hopefully, we did nothing. But Wyeth convinced Helga Testorf to get naked. And then he painted.

On the anti-Wyeth side is an entrenched corps of critics like Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker who, in 1987, famously wrote: “Wyeth isn’t exactly a painter. He is a gifted illustrator for reproduction, which improves his dull originals.”

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He also called Wyeth “a regional reproof to all aspects of urbanity.” Regional—which is to say, “minor, not world-class; OK for fooling the rubes.”

Wyeth heard this sort of talk for much of his life. Success provided partial compensation, but the artist admitted that negative criticism still hurt. It “really knocks you flat,” he told one writer, “like a stiff haymaker to the midsection.”

One critic, Brian O’Doherty, thinks the disagreements about Wyeth may be a city/country thing. Wyeth paints rural scenes with an emphasis on its loneliness that people in crowded cities—or even suburbs—often just don’t get and, therefore, confuse with nostalgia.

“I think he is grievously misjudged by city people,” said O’Doherty. “What people see in Wyeth is sentiment, but country sentiment is a cover for all kinds of brutalities.”

Born in Chadds Ford in 1917, Wyeth grew up in a family of artists. His father, Newell Convers “N.C.” Wyeth, was a magazine and book illustrator who first came to the region at the turn of the 20th century to study with Howard Pyle. Pyle, a native of Wilmington, ran a free, invitation-only school in an old mill near Brandywine Battlefield for the most talented students in his art classes at Drexel Institute. The senior Wyeth liked the Brandywine Valley so much that, after achieving his first successes, he returned, bought land and built a house.

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According to biographer David Michaelis, N.C. Wyeth had a difficult childhood and, perhaps for that reason, was determined to create an idyllic world for his own children. He guided daughter Ann’s career as a composer, and taught Henriette, Caroline and Andrew to paint. (He was Andrew’s only teacher.) N.C. taught his children—as Pyle had taught him—that the only way to paint something was to experience it. And so the Wyeth children began their artistic educations with endless romps through the woods, often dressed in the period costumes in which their father dressed his models. In addition to providing disciplined artistic training, N.C. wanted to free his children’s imaginations and sharpen their powers of observation.

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And N.C. Wyeth saw that there was a lot to observe. A large, loud man who liked family gatherings and lively conversation, the elder Wyeth believed that great art grew out of a great and active life. So he not only painted scenes on his farm, he plowed his own fields (with a horse) and chopped his own firewood. “Now, when I paint a figure on horseback, a man plowing or a woman buffeted by the wind,” he wrote, “I have an acute bodily sense of the muscle strain, the feeling of the hickory handle or the protective bend of the head or squint of eye that each pose involves.”

Not surprisingly, Andrew and his siblings did farm chores, too.

So after N.C. Wyeth was killed by a train at the Ring Road crossing in 1945, the Wyeth universe was effectively reordered. For Andrew, this was the end of what he later called his “blue sky” period of bright watercolors.

The younger Wyeth’s potential was first recognized in 1935 when he was included in an exhibit at the Art Alliance of Philadelphia titled The Wyeth Family. N.C.’s work was the main draw, but Andrew stole the show with 16 pictures, including “Ruins—Washington’s Headquarters” and “McVey’s Barn.” A 1937 show at New York’s Macbeth Gallery sold out so quickly the gallery owner was left trying to placate regular customers who hadn’t yet seen it. He was, said one curator involved in the show, a “comer.”

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Critics were “startled by the bold colors that young Wyeth used—the deep reds, blues, greens and vermilions of the Maine subjects and the rusty oranges, reds, browns and yellows of the Chadds Ford scenes,” wrote Susan Strickler, director of the Currier Museum of Art. “These are not the muted tones of Wyeth’s later work.”

C. Wyeth’s death left his son with a more tragic view of life, as well as the freedom to explore it. Increasingly, his paintings suggested themes of loss, hidden danger and the precariousness of life. In the process, he turned away from painting people and began painting things. In particular, he focused on vessels—cups and buckets, usually empty and often upended—which, according to the show’s curators, are metaphors for loss. Windows, doors and thresholds represented the fragility of life and the quickness of the passage from life to death. (One iconic image, “Cooling Shed,” combined both motifs in a view of two overturned buckets seen through a door.) His colors grew muted.

Of particular interest to Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Kathleen Foster is Wyeth’s “Groundhog Day,” which her institution bought for $35,000 soon after it was finished in 1959. The image is an interior view of a kitchen window; in the foreground, a table is set for one, with a single plate and a single knife; through the window is a typically brown southeastern Pennsylvania winter. A log, wrapped in chain, lies on the grass.

To “get” the painting, says Foster, one needs to know that the kitchen was in the home of Karl Kuerner, at the corner of whose farm N.C. Wyeth had his fatal encounter with the train. Because of that association, the spot became something of a mecca for Andrew Wyeth, whose presence was tolerated by the sympathetic Kuerners. Eventually he created hundreds of images at the Kuerner farm, including some of his best-known work.

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Kuerner, a German World War I veteran, didn’t outwardly resemble Wyeth’s cosmopolitan father. But his country rawness had an authenticity that the artist found comforting and inspiring. “Karl became a surrogate for the father that Wyeth regretted he never painted and a figure from childhood battlefield fantasies come to life,” wrote Foster, “the center of a galaxy of reveries about Karl as machine-gunner, deer slayer, hog butcher, master of death.”

Wyeth created various studies for the image—some with Kuerner’s wife, others with the family’s “bad” dog, Nellie, which had a habit of snapping and barking. None quite worked until Wyeth simplified the scene. The final version includes no people. According to Foster, the place setting suggests the imminent return of Kuerner, who ate—in the old, rural European fashion—with one utensil, a knife. More, Wyeth allowed the log, with a jagged row of splintered wood, to represent the dangerous, snarling dog. The result: a sense of danger held at bay-—though just barely.

Also suggestive of things unseen is Wyeth’s 1943 “Public Sale,” which depicts a dark crowd of men near a farmhouse partially hidden over the crest of a hill. Why are they there? Unless one knows the title, there is no immediate explanation, though the painting has an undeniably funereal feel. In fact, the idea was born when Wyeth attended a farm auction that was necessitated by a death.

N.C. Wyeth probably would not have liked this stuff. The elder Wyeth was a very busy illustrator who worked closely with authors, editors and publishers, and had adopted a conventional sense of what was marketable. When N.C. saw Andrew’s 1944 painting, “Turkey Pond”—a rear view of a man walking toward a pond through tall grass—he reportedly dismissed it. “According to Wyeth, his father said, ‘Andy, that’s no sort of painting. You have to put a gun in his hand and add a few hunting dogs if you want it to sell,’” said Foster. (By then, Andrew was 29 and, presumably, had learned to ignore his father.)

As powerful as N.C.’s absence has been the presence of Andrew’s wife, Betsy. The two were not fond of each other. N.C. thought the marriage in 1940 would distract his son. For her part, wrote Foster, Betsy didn’t realize that N.C.’s work was “more subtle and complex than she had thought” until she edited his letters 25 years after his death.

Betsy supported her husband’s shift toward austerity and encouraged him to give up bright colors. She also took over the family finances and has been the primary builder of Wyeth’s worldwide market for reproductions, thereby freeing her husband from the business side of his career.

Knutson counts it as part of Wyeth’s 1980s midlife crisis that he symbolically rebelled against Betsy by shutting himself away for three years with Kuerner’s nurse, Testorf. Wyeth produced hundreds of drawings and paintings, many nude, which caused a sensation when revealed to the public—and Betsy—as “the Helga pictures” in 1986. “Now they think of it as a sexual exploit,” said Wyeth in dismissing the rumors. “My God, the amount of work I produced, I couldn’t do both.”

Will Wyeth’s work endure? It may be more than a hundred years before we find out. By then, our own work will have long since been judged.
The original version of this story ran in the March 2006 issue of Main Line Today.

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