In Focus

The Wyeths' Vision of America

Brilliantly patterned illustrations that capture the spirit of romance, stark and lonely images that bespeak the inner heart of America, and forceful paintings that depict the essence of people and the land—three generations of the Wyeth family, N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, his son Andrew and his grandson Jamie, have produced a body of work which for many people characterizes America. The Wyeths' distinctly rural vision derives from and is rooted in the land and people of the beautiful and historic Brandywine River Valley, and in dramatic, coastal Maine - the two regions in which this family of artists have lived and worked for more than 80 years.

N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) traveled from his parents' home in Needham, Massachusetts to the Brandywine Valley, finding in that rural region of Pennsylvania and northern Delaware a countryside much like the one in which he had grown up and loved. He came to the region to study with Howard Pyle, "the father of American illustration," and he settled in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—where he raised a family that became famous for its art. All three Wyeth generations have been inspired by the Brandywine countryside and the people who live and labor on the land. When he moved to Chadds Ford, N.C. is said to have remarked, "This is a country of restraints."

In many of his more dramatic works, N.C. incorporated the landscape he loved so much. The trees, fields, and country paths of his world are found even in his medieval s cenes. In his imagination, southern Pennsylvania became Treasure Island, or Robin Hood's England. As an illustrator, N.C. Wyeth's fame began in 1903 and continued until his death in 1945. He painted boldly in oil on large canvases and he treated a wide variety of subjects, the first of which was the American West. For many years, he was known throughout the country - especially to magazine readers - as a western illustrator of books such as Buffalo Bill's autobiography. He knew the West from first-hand experience so that when he painted the Navajo accurately and sympathetically it was because he had lived with them and revered their culture. His most famous set of illustrations was for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. The dramatic depiction of Old Pew from that book is one of the most famous of all American illustrations. Almost equally popular were his illustrations for James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans.

N.C. Wveth was more than a story teller: he was a wonderful technician. He painted extraordinary compositions in a great variety of styles and techniques. He admired Impressionist styles and his paintings for Robin Hood revealed his interest in the impasto brushwork of certain American Impressionists as well as the European, Giovanni Segantini. N.C. Wyeth's deep concern with the techniques of painting was passed on to his son, Andrew. Although Andrew Wyeth's primary media are egg tempera and watercolor, instead of oil, the importance of technique in the service of art is clear in all his work.

Living in the same country world of Chadds Ford and coastal Maine, Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917) learned both drawing and watercolor methods from his father; indeed, his father was the only teacher he ever had. He achieved mastery of the watercolor medium at an early age and has been well-known ever since. Andrew still lives with his wife in the home where he raised his family and he continues to paint places and people he has known for a lifetime. Much of his major work has been done in the ancient medium of egg tempera, once used by Roman and Medieval artists. Such works are painted on thick wooden panels.

He has extended the watercolor medium through the use of a very "dry brush" application of almost pure pigment, with which he is able to render extensive detail on paper and to weave his strokes much as he weaves the surface of tempera paintings. Andrew Wyeth never paints beyond his limited worlds in Chadds Ford and Maine, and he never paints what he does not know. If this self-imposed restriction reminds us of Henry David Thoreau, it should because the artist was born on the writer's 100th birthday and shares with him a reverence for the countryside and for people who live close to the land and endure its harsh beauty.

Andrew Wyeth's world is peopled by survivors, men and women with great strength of character who understand their places in this world. Wyeth says that he begins a picture with abstract forms - that shapes are what inspire him - and that the detail is filled in later as the painting or drawing develops. Most important to him is "Catching the essence of a landscape without making it into a picture." Despite his meticulous technique, Andrew's paintings are about an inner being, a more intense reality: "A picture," he maintains, "has to come naturally, freely, organically." Several other members of the Wyeth clan are artists, including Andrew's sisters. His son Jamie (b. 1946) continues the family love of rural scenes, but chooses deliberately to show nature's raw and violent side, seldom allowing the viewer to relax within the natural world he depicts.

Jamie is well known for his fine portraits of both people and animals, and even of buildings. And like other Wyeths, he often finds his subjects in the Brandywine Valley and in Maine, often presenting his subjects in isolation. The artist focuses on the beauty, faults, and unique qualities of his sitters, whether animate or inanimate, and he frequently does so with a sense of humor.

Although Jamie clearly continues traditions valued by his father and grandfather - a love of nature and the countryside - his approach to his subjects is uniquely his own. His art is more cosmopolitan, in that he has painted well-known figures such as Rudolph Nureyev, Andy Warhol, and of course John F. Kennedy. His techniques are also his own. Jamie works with oil on canvas, often with a heavy impasto that indicates the surface of his subject, with watercolor, a medium taught to him by his father, and with a complex mixed media technique that produces fascinating effects.

It is rare, indeed, for talent such as N.C, Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth have manifested, to be found in three successive generations of a family. They share a dedication to romance and adventure, to an enduring sense of values, and to disciplined work. Their art presents a strong and distinctly American vision of their world and of mans' place in it. Perhaps the Wyeths are so much loved as artists because they depict hardy, stern, self-reliant people in deep communication, as the Wyeths themselves are, with the lasting presence of river, sea, hills and earth. Like Thoreau, they imagine things "Perennial, young, divine, in the wind and rain, which never die."

Adapted from

Anne Bromberg, "The Wyeth's Vision of America," Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin, 1987/88 Fall/Winter, 12-15.