July 12, 1917—Andrew Wyeth, a member of an artistic dynasty who received popular attention for his own distinctive portraits and rural landscapes drawn from the Brandywine River Valley and Maine, was born in Chadds Ford, Penn.
Andrew’s father, N.C. Wyeth, became famous for his vivid illustrations of adventure tales by Stevenson, Defoe, Cooper and Verne. His son, Jamie Wyeth, created more abstract work in his early years, though one venture into the realistic style, a portrait of President John F. Kennedy, gained much notice for him while the artist was still only a teenager, and served notice of the eventual mode he would adopt. Even two of Andrew’s sisters, Henriette and Carolyn, became artists, at a time when that was more unusual than it is now.
For people who don’t follow art closely, Andrew may be best known for reasons associated more with scandal than with achievement. I’m speaking of his “Helga” paintings, a series of renderings (frequently nudes) of neighbor Helga Testorf that were created in secret, with not even Andrew’s wife-business manager Betsy aware of them for a long time. (Or so the story went. See my prior post on the background of this controversy.)
In this and other instances, Andrew’s imagination fed on unconventional sources. One of these, I learned from a visit to his studio, was film. At age eight, he became fascinated by director King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), and would go on to see the antiwar silent masterpiece 200 times. He would even consider it his strongest single visual influence.
Helga was not the only neighbor that Wyeth caught on canvass. The paraplegic Christina Olson, who lived on a Maine farm near Wyeth, became the subject of Christina's World (1948, pictured), which shows her crawling in a field below her house. Created with egg tempera and, with the model’s face away from the viewer’s gaze, it is suffused with mystery and has become one of the central holdings of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
For years, Wyeth was hardly a darling of critics. They regarded his realistic style as unoriginal and out of step with the avant-garde movement; aside from the “Helga” cache of paintings, they saw little of the notorious or transgressive in his work; and those of a bohemian bent regarded Andrew's known votes for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan appalling.
More recently, however, the critical pendulum has swung toward Wyeth, wrote Daniel Grant in a Huffington Post piece in March. The qualities that the public perceived—meticulous attention to detail, compositional balance, and subdued tones that make the viewer curious about this world—have finally become more apparent to the critical establishment.
Above all, the artist’s intense identification with his subjects can no longer be derided as merely sentimental. “Know it spiritually,” N.C. advised his son on how to approach a subject. “Be a part of it.”
Andrew learned his lesson well.