Fine Artists: Andrew Wyeth American Artist 1917-2009

"Turkey Pond" Andrew Wyeth PaintingAndrew Wyeth was one of the best-known U.S. artists of the middle 20th century and was sometimes referred to as the "Painter of the People," due to his work's popularity with the American public. He was a visual artist, primarily a realist painter, working predominantly in a regionalist style. In his art, Wyeth's favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine. Several galleries and museums, including the National Gallery of Art, display Andrew Wyeth's work when prior to this they had never featured the work of a living artist.

Andrew Wyeth’s ability to create unmistakably realistic images set to a fictional tone both impressed and enraged critics. During his sixty-year career, his work gradually began an evolution from realism to surrealistic expressionism to a combination of both. Andrew Wyeth was born July 12, 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of five children. Andrew was a sickly child and so his mother and father made the decision to pull him out of school after he contracted whooping cough. His parents home-schooled him in every subject including art education. Andrew's father, Newell Convers Wyeth, was a well known illustrator whose art was featured in many magazines, calendars, posters and murals. He even painted maps for the National Geographic Society. The Wyeth household was a lively place with much intellectual and social stimulation. Because of the prominence of N.C. Wyeth, persons including many dignitaries came from all over the country to visit the family. Andrew's sisters Caroline and Henriette became noted artists as did his brother-in-law, Peter Hurd. Andrew Wyeth holds no high school diploma, formal training or college degree. Wyeth started drawing at a young age, and with his father’s guidance, he mastered figure study and watercolor, and later learned egg tempera from Hurd. He studied art history on his own, admiring many masters of Renaissance and American painting, especially Winslow Homer.

One of the most well-known images in 20th-century American art is Andrew Wyeth's painting, Christina's World, (shown here). It depicts a young woman lying on the ground, in a treeless, mostly tawny field, looking up at and crawling towards a gray house on the horizon; a barn and various other small outbuildings are adjacent to the house. Painted in 1948, this tempera work, done in a realist style, is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as a part of their permanent collection. The girl of the painting is Christina Olson; she had an undiagnosed muscular deterioration that paralyzed her lower body.

"Christinas World" Andrew Wyeth paintingAndrew Wyeth was inspired to create the painting when through a window from within the house he saw her crawling across a field. Wyeth had a summer home in the area and was on friendly terms with Olson, using her and her younger brother as the subject of paintings from 1940 to 1968. Olson was the inspiration and subject of the painting but she was not the primary model. Wyeth's wife Betsy posed as the torso of the painting. Although the woman in the painting appears young, Olson was 55 at the time Wyeth created the work. The house depicted in the painting is known as the Olson House, and is located in Cushing, Maine. It is open to the public as a part of the Farnsworth Museum complex, is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and has been restored to match its appearance in the painting. In the painting, Wyeth separated the house from its barn and changed the lay of the land.

Andrew Wyeth maintained a style strongly oriented towards Realism when Abstract Expressionism was all-prevalent. Adhering to his own path, he was snubbed by many prominent art critics. However, his paintings have elements of abstraction in that the work derives from his strong feelings about his subjects, which often appear in unusual positions, juxtapositions, and with features highlighted for emotional effect. His work usually suggests rural quiet, isolation, and somber mood and is devoid of modern-day objects such as automobiles. In 1937, Wyeth's first one-man show of watercolors depicting scenes around Port Clyde, Maine, sold out at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. In Maine, Andrew first spent his summers in Port Clyde with his family, but after his marriage to Betsy James in 1940, he and his wife went regularly to Cushing.

American Artist Andrew Wyeth painting "Night Sleeper"In October 1945, Andrew Wyeth's father and his three-year-old nephew, Newell Convers Wyeth II, were killed when their car stalled on railroad tracks near their home and was struck by a train. Wyeth referred to his father's death as a formative emotional event in his artistic career, in addition to being a personal tragedy. Shortly afterwards, Wyeth's art consolidated into his mature and enduring style; characterized by a subdued color palette, realistic renderings, and the depiction of emotionally charged, symbolic objects and/or people. Dividing his time between Pennsylvania and Maine, Wyeth maintained a realist painting style for over fifty years. He gravitated to several identifiable landscape subjects and models.

In 1958, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth purchased and restored "The Mill," a group of 18th-century buildings that appeared often in his work, including Night Sleeper (shown left). His solitary walks were the primary means of inspiration for his landscapes. He developed an extraordinary intimacy with the land and sea and strove for a spiritual understanding based on history and unspoken emotion. He typically created dozens of studies on a subject in pencil or loosely brushed watercolor before executing a finished painting. Wyeth has received many official honors. Andrew Wyeth was widely celebrated inside and outside of the art world.

In 1963, Andrew Wyeth was the subject of a cover story for Time magazine and, thanks to President John F. Kennedy, he became the first visual artist to be nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Nixon sponsored an exhibition of Wyeth's paintings at the White House. In 1990, Wyeth received the Congressional Gold Medal, the first artist to have that honor. In 2007, President Bush awarded Wyeth the National Medal of Arts in recognition of his lifetime achievement and contribution to American arts and culture. Two years earlier, Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, presented to the White House his painting "Jupiter," which is displayed in the residence's family sitting room. Andrew Wyeth passed on in his sleep at the age of 91 on January 16, 2009 at his home in Chadds Ford.

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Andrew Wyeth
Night Sleeper