IT IS THERE in the cool springhouse, hear the water dripping. There in the hay bale in the field, see the light dancing. And even under the tree where a horn is strung, with King Arthur reaching up to sound the battle call. It is a sense of place. It is an American place, or a place in the heart.
"An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art" is a stunning show. From N.C. Wyeth to his son Andrew to his son Jamie, family resemblances abound, from the Brandywine Valley to the Maine coast.
It starts with N.C., who could never shake the bonds of being an illustrator and having to support a large family. He saw his son Andrew as doing what he always wanted to do: just paint. His escape wish dictated his choice of format. No diminutive Arthur Rackham drawings for him. N.C. wrote large in oil on canvas. His illustrations for early 20th-century editions of "Treasure Island," "Kidnapped," "Robin Hood" and "The Boy's King Arthur" brim with buckle and swash, as in days of old when knights were bold. They were done for children -- but are never childish.
You can read these paintings like pages in an adventure tale. True, the painter was trapped by the narrative -- but what drama he brought to it. There is the frightful portrait in loneliness of the blind man "Old Pew," from "Treasure Island." He wanders down toward the viewer, his cape wild, exactly as Robert Louis Stevenson described him, "tapping up and down the road in a frenzy, and groping and calling for his comrades." And there is the sailor hanging on for dear life in "The Wreck of the Covenant," as the ship goes down into the billowing waves.
How similar is the southeastern Pennsylvania light in N.C.'s "Mowing," to the soft light found in Andrew Wyeth's watercolors and temperas. The three generations share sensibilities -- a love of nature, a certain melancholy. But while N.C.'s palette was warmed by the fireside, where embers cast a glow on the pages of a book, Andrew's palette is the green and brown of an earth that yields itself grudgingly.
Andrew's world is a morose one, of an old salt adrift on a barren sea -- brown of course. Of a drifter who looks away. Of the Kuerners, the neighbors who preceded the renowned Helga as subjects, a singularly unattractive couple. When Wyeth paints the husband going out the door in his hunting jacket, carrying his rifle, it is pointed at the wife.
"Trodden Weed" is typical Andrew Wyeth. A painting from the knees down of a man walking in boots, it is brilliantly textured. But it is disturbingly only half of a scene. (When Van Gogh painted boots, it was a finished work.) The personal symbolism is that the boots that crushed the weed belonged to Howard Pyle, the illustrator who taught and so greatly influenced N.C. Wyeth. But knowing that doesn't add much. It is an inner landscape -- and a barren one.
There are three reprises on Helga here, but "Christina's World," Wyeth's most famous image, is missing from the 117-painting show.
N.C. Wyeth died in 1945 when a train hit his car at a rail crossing. Grandson Jamie was born the following year. Showing talent at painting, he led a privileged life, for an artist. He was tutored and taught drawing and painting at home. Still, his development was precocious. Who can believe that he painted the extraordinary realistic "Portrait of Shorty" at age 17?
While his father's portraits are remote, Jamie's are full of life. And in "Kalounna in Frog Town," done in 1986, not only is the boy looking directly at the viewer, the "Dallas" T-shirt he's wearing is red.
Sources in the Brandywine Valley seem to be drying up. In a sort of "Charlotte's Web" period, Jamie Wyeth painted monumental farm animals there. It is hard to paint animals and not make them cunningly cloying. But the sea holds promise for Jamie Wyeth, whose rapid growth as a painter presents a fascinating show in itself.
In "Breakfast at Sea," a hulking man leans over his breakfast and the woman, softer, more genteel in her tennis hat and lace nightgown, has just broken into the egg (note it is a brown egg) in her eggcup. She and he and the wicker table are all gently tilted leeward. It is a modern statement, but it still possesses that bona fide Wyeth nostaglia. AN AMERICAN VISION: THREE GENERATIONS OF WYETH ART --
Through August 30 at the Corcoran Gallery. Admission by ticket only, available for the same day only at the gallery: $3 for adults, $1.50 for senior citizens and students, free for children under 12; all free Thursdays 5 to 9. Tickets may be obtained in advance, with an additional service charge, from Ticketron outlets or Teletron at 800/233-4050.