Art Pilgrimage to Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect
This writer took a trip to The Brandywine River Museum of Art, an old gristmill built in 1864 that was converted to a museum and conservancy in 1971 in Chadds Ford County, Pennsylvania, but during Wyeth’s time, was known as a renowned illustration school and also a driving force in the Wyeth family’s artistic endeavors.
The Brandywine River Museum of Art recently had a retrospective for deceased painter Andrew Wyeth’s 100th birthday. He was known for painting the world around him with an aesthetic that Wyeth’s detractors might think outdated, emblematic of yesteryear America. His work is deeply personal and tends to traverse tight concentric circles around his life. It also largely avoids political issues; which is why it may be easily dismissed. Going to the town and seeing the work hanging cohesively really gives a sense of what Andrew was after. The locale of Chadds Ford and its people is the central character of Andrew’s work
N.C. Wyeth, Andrew’s father, Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son, and Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew’s sister, all had work on display at the show as well. Each had their own personal narratives going on which intermingled with and built on each others--allowing viewers a glimpse into the art scene created in Chadds Ford and providing historic context.
A sense of place and narrative is evident in seeing the various artists’ works hanging together. Styles clearly informed each other, and because these artists worked in and around Chadds Ford, it is interesting to see what catches the eye of a particular artist. Carolyn’s work such as Nut Trees (1975) or Up in the Woods (1974) spring to mind. Her sensitive handling of subject is more musical and less literary than Andrew’s. The collection on display includes a sizable assortment of N.C.’s illustrations, shown in context with that of Howard Pyle, an instructor at the Brandywine River School, as well as Carolyn’s paintings, displayed alongside paintings by Peter Hurd, the man who initially introduced Andrew to egg tempera.
Andrew’s bleak barebones winter landscapes, a motif ever present after the death of his father, demonstrate his close relationship to his environment. The cold, hard loneliness portrayed in such as piece as Night Sleeper (1979) for example, created conflict between his human subjects and their environments.We can hear the otherworldly silence of the scene and feel the defiant hard edges of man-made structures within the natural environment.
His compositions are austere and the work become universal because of it. Once such painting that comes to mind is the intimate Garrett Room (1962). The subject, a farmhand, is sleeping with his boots on while sinking into a lively quilt. These depictions remind us what it feels like to be an embodied individual in an environment; implicating auditory and tactile senses.
The town of Brandywine also happens to be the site of the largest land battle in the Revolutionary War and growing up in Chadds Ford surrounded by props used in his father’s illustrations seems to have had an affect on the artist when he was young. Interest in these themes are evident in works like The Patriot (1964). It is easy to imagine how paintings like this came from growing up where he did while hearing stories told by the veteran. Wyeth was working within the world of his influence and immediate effect, so the way he told the stories of the people around him is especially clear. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988 for acting out these values. His subjects were often neighbors--not hired models, and this deep personal connection to the people he painted imbues them with meaning. There is a lifetime of personal connections behind these paintings.
The highlight of the show for this writer was his pencil and charcoal sketches. In contrast to his more well-known tempera paintings, which are completed with an unbelievable amount of finish, his sketches and looser drybrush watercolor (namely the ones where pencil is visible underneath) really show the content of his observation. The focal point is undeniable, often highly rendered down to the individual hairs on a head or fibers on a jacket, Spring Sun (1958), a drybrush watercolor where the sketch underneath is evident is an exemplary example.
Having the chance to see up close and personal the variety of marks Wyeth makes and the different treatment of surfaces was the highlight of the show for this writer, because it breaks down his way of seeing in a medium which is intuitive. Even people who had previously believed Wyeth’s work to be unimaginative and realist might be able to appreciate his technical ability to capture a moment.
Stepping into the artist's’ world, a town rich with history and transformed into a prolific artist community; knowing the historic context of the work; and entering with a perspective of narrative provides a very engaging experience. It is valuable to contrast Wyeth’s work with our own lives and realize at its core is made of the same stuff: our relationships to those around us. Wyeth’s work is a clear reminder of the care and meaning we give to our lives, through his ability to aggrandize the ordinary in his own life.
Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect will be on view at the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art from June 24th-September 17th, 2017.
Written by Ryan Kerr