Saturday, January 17, 2009
Andrew Wyeth, probably the most renowned painter in the United States, died Friday at his home in Chadds Ford, Pa. He was 91.
Mr. Wyeth was the second - following his father N.C. Wyeth, and succeeded by his son, Jamie - in a dynasty of celebrated painters whom most critics belittled as illustrators during an era when the visual arts crackled with experimentation.
Mr. Wyeth preferred to work in tempera, a resistant medium that most of his contemporaries regarded as obsolete. Its sensuous asperity suited his largely sunless vision of rural American vistas and characters tattered by time and isolation.
The extreme popularity, and the ready reproducibility, of some of Mr. Wyeth's paintings, particularly "Christina's World" (1948), kept public curiosity about the artist, which he ignored, at a simmer throughout his career.
In 1988, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, in its now-demolished old building, hosted the widely circulated exhibition, "Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures." It featured dozens of portraits, including many nudes, of a favorite model that Mr. Wyeth had reputedly kept secret from his wife.
The insinuation of infidelity about "The Helga Pictures," combined with admiration of Mr. Wyeth's obvious technical skills, caused the exhibition to attract huge crowds at all of its venues.
Andrew Wyeth: Master Drawings from the Artist's Collection
So did the purchase by collector Leonard E.B. Andrews, before the show began its tour, of the nearly 250 works in the complete Helga series for an undisclosed sum rumored to be between $6 million and $10 million. Some commentators even raised suspicions that the collector might have conspired with the artist to inflate the value of the works, following their purchase, by inflating the lore of their clandestine production. Andrews later sold the cache abroad for a reputed $40 million.
Again, critics generally disdained the Helga portraits and their surrounding hoopla as a triumph of promotion over artistry. Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times nearly lost his job for writing a caustic pan of the Helga exhibition and Mr. Wyeth, which he ended by admitting that he had not seen the show and had no intention of doing so.
In 1998, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York presented "Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth," which came closer than any other exhibition to remaking Mr. Wyeth's reputation among critics. Again, acclaim was far from unanimous, but critics with some technical appreciation of watercolor recognized true mastery, and at times even a modernist eye for composition, in the landscapes the show surveyed.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco own three superb examples of Wyeth's watercolor work, although none are currently on display.
Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic
But the last substantial show of Mr. Wyeth's work, "Andrew Wyeth: Magic and Memory" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2006, may have come closest to representing his own estimation of his achievement. He and his family helped to select, and in some cases loaned, the work included.
Tempera paintings predominated in the Philadelphia show, with a strong and persuasive emphasis on portraits. Aspects of mood, narrative and symbolism also prevailed, despite the inclusion of a few formally audacious works on paper.
But the Philadelphia retrospective left the impression of an artist proudly committed to anachronism.
Mr. Wyeth, born on July 12, 1917, the youngest of five children, received formal training only from his father.
N.C. (for Newell Convers) Wyeth had become famous as an illustrator of popular literary classics well before his son's apprenticeship in his studio, which lasted only two years. Because of a respiratory ailment, Andrew Wyeth had been educated at home, so the transition to his father's tutelage was natural, and eased by Mr. Wyeth's native drawing talent.
Mr. Wyeth's first New York gallery show in 1936 brought immediate success, but he claimed to have taken his own artistic potential seriously only after the accidental death of his father, his chief inspiration, in 1945. Mr. Wyeth claimed to recognize his father's expansive spirit in the Pennsylvania landscape that so many of his pictures describe.
From his older brother-in-law, Peter Hurd, another prominent illustrator, Mr. Wyeth learned the labor-intensive technique of painting in egg tempera. Through it, he felt a connection to the Northern Renaissance masters, such as Albrecht Dürer, the realist painters he most admired.
Mr. Wyeth's wife of nearly 68 years, Betsy, successfully managed the business of his career for decades. They divided their time between homes in Chadds Ford and in Maine. Neighbors in both states, including Christina Olson of "Christina's World" and Helga Testorf, made their way into Mr. Wyeth's pictures.
Mr. Wyeth received many honors besides popular recognition and major museum exhibitions. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.