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Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly described the nephew of Wyeth's who died with Wyeth's father, painter N.C. Wyeth, in a 1945 accident. The boy was the child of N.C. Wyeth's other son, not the child of one of his daughters.
Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009

Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009: An Unmistakable Figure on the Barren Landscape

American painter Andrew Wyeth, famous for capturing the people and landscapes of Pennsylvania's Brandywine River Valley, died in his sleep on Jan. 16 at the age of 91.

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By Henry Allen and Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth, best-loved painter of wistfulness, rural bleakness, menace, Puritanical solitude and an America lost to 20th-century dry rot, died yesterday morning in his sleep at the Wyeth family estate in Chadds Ford, Pa., between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. He was 91. He died in just the sort of weather he loved, the empty cold and the sharp sunlight of the dead of winter.

"America's best-known and best-loved artist," said a catalogue for a 1996 show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, before it elevated him still higher: "America's artist."

At a White House dinner in 1970, Richard Nixon toasted Wyeth as an artist who "caught the heart of America." Critic Jay Jacobs once called him "the spiritual leader of Middle America."

As such, he took a beating from critics who attacked him as morbid, mawkish and a "Martha Stewart existentialist." He made it easy for them with his morbid coyness, and his attempts to claim credentials as the sort of abstractionist they admired.

Coy: as in a painting called "Brown Swiss," which showed an off-white farmhouse reflected in a pond and surrounded by brown pasture with no cows in it whatsoever. He liked to say that his most famous painting, "Christina's World," might have been better without Christina in it, a crippled, withered woman in a pink housedress dragging herself up a parched hill toward a weather-beaten Maine farmhouse. It wouldn't have.

Throughout his career, Wyeth and modernists tried and failed to reconcile. The Museum of Modern Art bought "Christina's World" in 1949, but Wyeth continued to be scorned by those who eschewed emotions associated with beauty, and found virtue instead in progress, originality, abstraction, shock, pop culture and politics.

"I honestly consider myself an abstractionist," Wyeth said in 1965. He said his biggest failing was too much "subject" in his work. But it was his realism and his subject matter that won him the love of millions of fans.

He was born in Chadds Ford. His father was N.C. Wyeth, who painted wildly vital illustrations for books such as "Treasure Island" and "The Last of the Mohicans." N.C. found beauty in melancholy, too: "Anything that I appreciate keenly and profoundly is always sad to the point of being tragic . . . so sad because it is all so beautiful, so hopeless."

Both Andrew and his father may have seemed to carry the banner for foes of modernism, but they both -- Andrew, in particular -- had the 20th-century knack for success through making unhappiness beautiful, in the manner of Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Ernest Hemingway or Miles Davis. Wyeth's son Jamie has followed the family tradition.

Andrew was a sickly child, and was schooled at home. Summers, the family went to Cushing, Maine, in a yearly migration that has continued for almost a century.

His father's historical props and costumes provided material for fantasies and family pageants. Wyeth stayed away from his father's subject matter, however, and from a career in illustration. Early watercolors of the Maine coast made up his first show, at the William Macbeth Gallery in New York, when Wyeth was 20. Soon he was experimenting with egg tempera, a medium used in medieval painting. Wyeth liked it, he said, because "it has a cocoonlike feeling of dry lostness -- almost a lonely feeling."

In 1945, his father stalled his car on a railroad crossing in Chadds Ford, and a train killed him and his daughter's 4-year-old son.


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