Andrew Wyeth
Biography and Paintings of American Realist Painter.
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Christina's World (1948)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
For other works similar to those
produced by Andrew Wyeth, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

Contents

Biography
Early Career
Christina's World
Helga Testorf Collection
The Regionalism Movement in America
Exhibitions
Reputation and Legacy
Collections



American Braids (1977)
Portrait of Helga Testorf
Private Collection.

MODERN ARTISTS
For painters like Andrew Wyeth, see:
Modern Artists.

Biography

One of the best loved contributors to American art, the 20th century artist, Andrew Wyeth, was a Realist painter whose paintings - meticulous and detailed, with an indefinable visionary quality - are regionalist in style, and his popularity earned him the title of 'Painter of the People'. Consisting mostly of landscapes and portraits from the Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania, and the Port Clyde area of the Maine coast, his works explore themes such as loneliness and nostalgia, within a relatively banal pictorial framework. His best-known painting is Christina's World (1948, Museum of Modern Art, New York). One of the most famous painters of the American realist school, Andrew Wyeth was the first native-born living American artist to receive a retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Nevertheless, among art critics and historians, Wyeth's work has attracted scepticism as well as praise, for its relatively unintellectual nature. He has also been associated with the Magic Realism style, along with his contemporary, the Canadian painter Alex Colville (b.1920).

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POSTERS OF WYETH
Paintings by Andrew Wyeth
are widely available online
in the form of poster art.

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Oils, watercolours, mixed
media from 1850-present.
Oil Painting
History, styles and development.

 

Early Career

Wyeth was born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in 1917. His father, Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945), was a famous artist and illustrator, a pupil of the artist Howard Pyle and created over 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books during his lifetime. Wyeth junior was a sickly child, and was home-schooled, under the guidance of his father. He started drawing from a young age and was introduced to oils, watercolours and egg tempera painting. He was a keen student of art history, including Greek Antiquities, the Italian Renaissance, the Rococo and the Romantics. Wyeth had a particular fondness however for American artists, in particular the American landscape/seascape painter and printmaker Winslow Homer. His father encouraged his artistic talent and fostered a love of the local natural landscape. In 1937, at the age of 21, Wyeth had his first solo exhibition of watercolour painting, at the Macbeth Art Gallery in New York. The exhibition sold out almost instantly, and his career in the art world was assured. In 1945, his father was killed in a car accident, and the personal tragedy was to have a lasting effect on his artistic development. After this point his colour palette became more muted in tone, and his subject matter more realistic. His work was more emotionally charged and a Symbolist influence can be seen. Three years later he painted his most famous work: Christina's World (1948, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

 

Christina's World

Wyeth painted Christina's World at his home farm in Cushing, Maine. Now, a very famous landscape painting, it depicts his neighbour Christina Olson sprawled on a field, with her back to the viewer, as she faces her own farmhouse in the distance. Due to polio, the real-life Christina was unable to walk and was often spotted by her neighbour crawling across the field. To Wyeth she was an inspiration 'limited physically but by no means spiritually'. He said 'the challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.' The painting is vastly spacious and invites the viewer to create their own narrative. This invitation to narrate was something his contemporary Edward Hopper would master, and which would encourage many other artists to try the same, including the popular Scottish artist Jack Vettriano.

Helga Testorf Collection

Wyeth typically enjoyed painting vacant wooden houses marked by time, along with deserted rooms which contained details symbolic of a severe life. He often created dozens of studies, sketches and watercolours before beginning a painting. He varied the media he used from watercolour painting, dry brush and egg tempera. He avoided the use of oil paints. Christina's World was in fact executed with egg tempera. Wyeth also practised portrait art, including a series of paintings of a mistress that only became public years later. Between 1971 and 1985 Wyeth created over 240 studies of his neighbour Helga Testorf. These studies were carried out without the knowledge of either participants' partners. In these studies, Helga rarely smiles, yet Wyeth manages to convey a variety of moods and characteristics of his model. The collection was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in 1987 and went on to tour various other museums and art galleries.

The Regionalism Movement in America

Like Grant Wood (1892-1942), Wyeth's work can be categorised as Regionalist. Regionalism was an American Realist art movement which was popular during the 1930s. (It was the midwest version of the broader movement known as American Scene Painting.) Regionalist artists shunned city life, preferring to paint the dustbowls and small towns of America. Other popular exponents were Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946). The movement gained popularity during the Great Depression, for its reassuring, warm images of the American heartland. Proponents of Regionalism supported realism as a defence against the influence of abstract art which was rapidly arriving from Europe. The debate between the merits of Social Realism, Regionalism and Abstraction raged in America throughout the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1940s two very clear camps had emerged: Regionalism and Social Realism on the one side and Abstract Expressionism on the other. Regionalism's subsequent loss of status in the art world was mainly due to the ultimate triumph of abstract art. However, many art critics argue that Regionalism played an important role in linking Academic Realism and Abstract Expressionism, in the way that the Neo-Impressionists like Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin and Cezanne were able to provide a bridge from Impressionism to Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism.

Exhibitions

In 1950 an exhibition entitled Symbolic Realism in American Painting was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, which was a retrospective of Wyeth's art from the previous decade. In 1954 he participated in a group exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, which focused on a comparison of Realism and Abstract American art. Wyeth was an avid sketcher, and an exhibition of his drawings, watercolours and tempera works were exhibited in 1967 at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. In 1976 he was greatly honoured with a retrospective at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1978 he represented the States at the Biennale Internationale d'Art in Paris. In the late 1980's Wyeth's 'Helga' paintings and sketches were exhibited in museums worldwide, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Palazzo Reale, Milan. In 1995 a major retrospective of the artist's work was held at the Aichi Perfectural Museum in Japan, and again in 2009 after the artist's death.

Reputation and Legacy

Wyeth has been much criticised for his popularity in artist circles. Although some claim he is an outstanding exemplar of Realism, others counter that when his works are viewed together they reveal very little power of observation. In quantity, they say his paintings reveal themselves to be quite mundane and routine. (For a more gritty realism, see George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) and other members of the New York Ashcan school.) Although museum retrospectives of his work always draw huge crowds, it did not stop a Village Voice art critic from opining that Wyeth's paintings are 'formulaic stuff, not very effective even as illustrational realism.' But advocates of Wyeth say his paintings are highly emotive, symbolic and carry an underlying abstraction. (See also the critics' reaction to Norman Rockwell, the populist American illustrator.)

Collections

Wyeth died in January 2009, at the grand age of 91. Today, as one of the great 20th century painters of America, Wyeth's works can be seen in many of the best art museums, including the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art NY, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Nelson-Atkins Museum (Kansas); Arkansas Art Center and the White House. A major retrospective of his work was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2006. In 1977 Wyeth became the first American painter, since John Singer Sargent to be elected to the Academy of Beaux-Arts in Paris. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 from US President Bush.

• For details of the evolution of American painting, see: History of Art.
• For more information about American modern art, see: Homepage.


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