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.
"When he died, I was just a clever watercolorist -- lots of swish and swash," Wyeth said. Soon he produced the unsettling tempera "Winter 1946," in which a boy runs down a winter hill, casting a wild lurch of a shadow on dead grass. As it happens, on the other side of the hill is the railroad crossing.
Wyeth also began painting Karl and Anna Kuerner, neighboring farmers. Karl had fought in the German army in World War I. Wyeth saw him as a father figure. In 1948, Wyeth painted him in "Karl," which he considered his best portrait: the head and shoulders of a hard man under a ceiling sprouting meat hooks.
The famous "Groundhog Day" showed jagged logs in the winter sunlight glare outside the Kuerners' kitchen, domesticity next to menace.
In 1940, he married Betsy James, who soon became a major power in the family, managing Wyeth's business and supplanting his father: According to Wyeth's biographer, Richard Meryman, she said she was "part of a conspiracy to dethrone the king. . . . And I did. I put Andrew on the throne."
In the 1980s she figured as an actor in the drama surrounding the "Helga" nudes.
It was claimed on the covers of newsmagazines that Andrew Wyeth, grand old man, had a "stunning secret" -- for years, unknown to Betsy, he'd been drawing and painting a model named Helga Testorf, another German immigrant, a sturdy, blond mother of four and housekeeper to his sister Carolyn. Hints of hanky-panky in the Kuerner house, where Wyeth and Testorf met. Scandal! Now Wyeth would have the same creds as Picasso or de Kooning.
The drama ended with accusations that the drama was concocted, that the paintings had not been "secret," that Betsy had known about them. Carolyn dismissed rumors of romance: "It's a bunch of crap."
And it turned out that the Helga paintings had been in the public eye since the late '70s. Stories would be told and changed and retold.
With all the publicity, Leonard E.B. Andrews, a Pennsylvania publisher, reportedly turned a $6 million dollar investment in the paintings into a $45 million sale to a Japanese collector, and was a force behind their exhibit at the National Gallery.
Much-respected gallery curator John Wilmerding managed the neat trick of writing an essay for the show's catalogue without ever saying whether he thought the paintings were any good. Gallery director J. Carter Brown would later be said to be shocked by Andrews's profiteering. The tour of the show ended all but unnoticed at the Brooklyn Museum.
Though Wyeth had been described as a master technician by friends and foes, the Helga paintings opened this redoubt to critics. The Washington Post's Paul Richard not only pooh-poohed the eros of the Helga nudes by calling them "monotonous" and "tepid," he also pointed out that "quick, brusque pencil drawings dominate this show, and in almost every one -- in one passage or another -- Wyeth's lines go dead." And, of a study: "Her left shoulder seems to run straight into her head. Her left forearm is too long. Both hands are a mess."
In a review of a 1996 show, one of us asked: "Why does the railing curve away from us while the floorboards of the deck proceed straight as a ruler? And how can a white chair in shadow be as white as a white rail in sunlight?"
But more important, Wyeth was loved, admired, defended and respected by countless Americans not because of either his realism or his abstraction but because of the way he made us feel.
He didn't take us back to Eden, in the manner of Renaissance pastoralists, he took us back to the moment of exile from Eden, the excruciating poignancy of the moment mankind came to know death. The fruits of Paradise are gone, the trees are bare ruined choirs, the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing as Shakespeare and Keats wrote in evoking the same feelings.
For all his realism, the America he shows is dead and gone, "lost and by the wind grieved," as Thomas Wolfe put it.
Wyeth's audience finds its identity in Britain and a lost agrarian past. Modernists find it in cities and the Continent. He appeals to the sort of people who take pride in loss, as shown in his paintings where snow blows over the dead land with the glamour of some kind of aftermath. He pairs grief with a celebration of innocence.
Wyeth makes us the main character in any painting, in part because there are so few people in his work. By contrast, Norman Rockwell, another realist lambasted by critics, makes us spectators at a gala show. Rockwell celebrates the community; Wyeth puts the individual at center stage, even when that individual is only an unseen viewer, which is to say us, alone as our Puritan ancestors brooding on their souls.
We admire and crave the tradition and continuity that the whole Wyeth family has shown in its works and lives. But Andrew Wyeth forces us to go back and back to loss, however painful, in the manner of tongues seeking a sore tooth. He shares a sense of tragedy that is especially common among old English stock like himself. People are grateful to him for reassuring them that their nostalgias, fantasies and would-be realities are real.
Has anyone done what he did, and done it better?
He is survived by his wife and two sons, Jamie, the painter, and Nicholas, an art dealer.