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Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

A painter of landscape and figure subjects in Pennsylvania and Maine, Andrew Wyeth became one of the best-known American painters of the 20th century. His style is both realistic and abstract, and he works primarily in tempera and watercolor, often using the drybrush technique.

He is the son of Newell Convers and Carolyn Bockius Wyeth of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and was home-schooled because of delicate health. His art instruction came from his famous-illustrator father, who preached the tying of painting to life–to mood and to essences and to capturing the subtleties of changing light and shadows.

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. The non-art oriented brother, Nathaniel Wyeth, achieved much success as a chemist for DuPont where, among many inventions, he created a durable plastic so plastic bottles could hold carbonated beverages.

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.

Christina Olson of Cushing, at the end of Hathorn Point, was his most famous model, but over the years, Wyeth formed close friendships with – and painted – several other Maine neighbors.  His closest friend, Walt Anderson, gradually ages before the eyes of viewers in numerous Wyeth drawings and paintings that show life’s changes from the youthful Young Swede (1939) to the older man in Adrift (1982).

The Olson House, where Christina and her brother lived, is now owned and maintained by the Farnsworth Museum, where Wyeth had his first major exhibition in 1951 and where the Andrew Wyeth Gallery is now a permanent exhibition place for his paintings.  In 1964, the directors of the Farnsworth Museum paid $65,000 for Wyeth’s painting Her Room, the highest price ever paid by a museum for the work of a living artist.  The Olson House is the first property ever named to the National Register of Historic Places for being recognized as the site of a painting, Christina’s World, one of the most recognized paintings in American art.

After the death of Christina Olson, Wyeth used female models Siri Erickson of Cushing, and Helga Testorf of Chadds Ford.  Depictions of the nude Helga, a total of 240 works, provided grist for an avalanche of sensational publicity.  The Helga paintings were exhibited in 1987 at the National Gallery of Art, the gallery’s first exhibition of works by a living artist.

Wyeth has received many official honors. In 1963, he 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. In 1990, Wyeth received the Congressional Gold Medal, the first artist to have that honor.

Andrew and his wife Betsy have two sons, Nicholas and Jamie Browning, the latter who has become a prominent American artist, and the former who shares with his father and his uncle, Nathaniel, a great fascination with machines, especially aviation.


Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth, A Secret Life

Jerry Crute, information that clarified the name of Siri Erickson and the town of Christina Olson.

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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