In Focus

Looking at Art: Andrew Wyeth

This essay originally appeared in the Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin as an announcement for An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art_, an exhibition in the fall of 1988._

In the fall of 1988, the Dallas Museum of Art will host a major exhibition sponsored by AT&T; of three generations of the Wyeth family: N.C. Wyeth, romantic illustrator, his son Andrew Wyeth, and his grandson James Wyeth. Although Andrew Wyeth is one of the best-loved, twentieth-century American artists, his art continues to arouse controversy in professional art circles. He is sometimes criticized as being overly-detailed and realistic, as sentimental, as unduly conservative, for painting rural scenes and people, rather than engaging in revolutionary artistic experiment. Why critics who define modern American art by Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism or the latest variety of Neo-Expressionism, dislike Wyeth is clear. Why people love his art, is, surprisingly, less clear, for he is certainly no Norman Rockwell, and the effect of his paintings is far from immediately obvious. Try really looking at some of Andrew Wyeth's paintings and come to your own conclusions.

Consider the 1946 pencil drawing of Beckie King (1949.7). It was done the year after Andrew Wyeth's father died in an automobile accident near the little town of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where the Wyeth family lives. The drawing still shows some of the rigorous training in draftsmanship that Andrew learned from N.C. Wyeth. The fine-drawn detail, the dry and wistful delineation of the old woman, remain characteristic of Wyeth's work even four decades later. It calls to mind the precision of Dürer, but without the German artist's nervous intensity. This portrait is intense in a calmer, more inward way. It is unflinchingly—indeed, almost unbearably—realistic in its depiction of every detail of old age: the thin hair, the bony, flaccid hands, the wrinkled skin, the chap-fallen mouth. The portrait projects an austere, unbending integrity. The aged Beckie King may be frail, but she is alive with an inner pertinacity that glances sideways from her darkling eyes.

Stoic persistence is a keynote of Andrew Wyeth's art. One of his most famous works, Christina's World (1948, Museum of Modern Art, New York City) actually depicts a plain, crippled, middle-aged woman seen from behind as she lies upon a grassy slope, yet many people perceive the figure as that of a young girl. Inside, she may be a young girl; without any overt emotionalism, all Wyeth's people, and even his barns and trees, have an interior life.

The DMA also has a very interesting example of Wyeth's progress towards a completed painting, a process that often requires a year or more. That Gentleman Study (1962.11) _shows how, as Wyeth himself has said, he proceeds boldly at first: "I may rush into my studio and, on a piece of paper, or maybe on a panel on my easel, draw one line, sweep it up and down, rush out." _That Gentleman Study consists of a few broadly drawn or brushed shapes. The essence of the later work is there - the old black man seated quietly in his chair, his face averted from the viewer, his life defined by the neat scissors and a worn pair of shoes. Otherwise, there is no detail and there is hardly a suggestion of the glancing light that dominates the completed painting, a light that cuts elliptically across the figure, illuminating the setting of the man's existence, rather than his face. In the study, the light is uniformly distributed.

The tempera on panel painting of That Gentleman (1962.27) was acquired by the Museum shortly after Wyeth completed it in 1960. Buying a work by so quintessential an American artist was seen as a community effort, and even students in the Dallas school system were excited enough to contribute toward the Museum's purchase. For many years That Gentleman has been the best known painting at the Museum. What makes this so revealing is that That Gentleman, like all Wyeth's work, makes no overt effort to please popular taste. It is a rigorously honest, emotionally restrained, almost elegiac work.

Tom Clark was an elderly black man, of probable Indian heritage as well. He was well-known to the Wyeths, as he lived out his life in their rural corner of southern Pennsylvania. Andrew Wyeth admired Clark's patience, courtesy (he called even flies "that gentleman") and calm. Andrew Wyeth did several works about the tall, thin, old man, before his death, and they all express Clark's character, his tidy austerity somehow expressive of a deeper human fortitude. Wyeth considers this the aim of his art: "To me, it is simply the question of whether or not I can find the thing that expresses the way I feel at a particular time about my own life and my own emotion."

Wyeth has also spoken about the difficulties and rewards of working in egg tempera: "Tempera is, in a sense, like building, really building in great layers the way the earth itself was built." It is a slower process than drawing or watercolor, and may be worked and reworked over a long period of time. Compared to the study, the painting of That Gentleman has a drier, more defined character. It also is a completely realized vision, in which the flat forms and the human poignancy are fused by the illuminating ray of light. Odd angles of light, composition, and a unique approach to his subjects are typical of Andrew Wyeth, who wants to express the inner meaning, and not simply the detailed outer appearance, of the people and scenes he paints. That Gentleman, sitting in almost religious quietude, suggests a passage from Henry David Thoreau: "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."

Adapted from

Anne Bromberg, "Looking at Art: Andrew Wyeth," Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin, (Summer 1987), 25-27.