Paintings by Andrew and Jamie Wyeth in The National Gallery
The National Gallery now owns 19 works by Wyeth, but its current exhibition was sparked by the recent gift of the tempera painting Wind from the Sea (1947). This was the artist’s first fully realized exploration of the motif of windows. He went on to create more than 300 works depicting windows without human figures, whose absence eliminates the possibility of personal narratives that can distract us in his other compositions (think Christina’s World). Instead, the window images focus us on Wyeth’s skillful manipulation of form and other more “abstract” values. Andrew and Jamie Wyeth
To assess these overlooked works, National Gallery curator Nancy K. Anderson selected some 60 of them; they include not only his finished temperas, but also preliminary drawings and watercolors, allowing visitors to follow Wyeth’s creative process closely. Eleven of the watercolors have been loaned by his 92-year-old widow, Betsy, and have never been seen in public; a further 10 have come from the Marunuma Art Park Collection in Japan. Because the National Gallery’s showing is so long (six months), and because works on paper are light-sensitive, the exhibition will not tour after Washington.
The resulting painting, like all the window images that followed, reveals how deeply Wyeth engaged with the visual complexities posed by windows’ varying degrees of transparency, reflectivity, luminosity, or geometric regularity. He looked at and through them from every angle and at all hours of day, presenting them shuttered, curtained, vacant,open, or closed. Sometimes we see the surrounding landscape beyond or interiors within; sometimes we don’t.
Among the windows considered most closely in this exhibition are those in the house belonging to Christina and Alvaro Olson, the Chadds Ford farmhouse and barn owned by Wyeth’s neighbor Karl Kuerner, and his own studio in Chadds Ford.
The appearance of this exhibition and its handsome catalogue marks an important step in art historians’ re-evaluation of Wyeth. For decades, scholars regarded Wyeth’s art as too popular for its own good — as a form of
kitsch to be tolerated but not highlighted. As these modernist detractors continue to retire and die — and as Wyeth’s own life recedes into history — younger and more nuanced observers can see that Wyeth’s artistry, like all good realism, may appear simple and descriptive, yet is actually as rigorous and hard-won as any other great art.
Having left school at age 11, Wyeth trained with his aunt Carolyn Wyeth (1909-1994), then spent time in New York City studying anatomy in the morgue and assisting at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Like his father, Jamie was the subject of massive media interest from a relatively young age. He, too, focused intensively on the distinctive landscapes
of southeastern Pennsylvania and coastal Maine, and also on still life subjects such as pumpkins (a lifelong fascination).
He has broken his own ground, however, through frequent depictions of the animals and
birds he loves, and through insightful — if sometimes controversial — portraits of well-known personalities. On the cover of this magazine appears his 1977 image of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he also captured Rudolf Nureyev; Warhol; his father; his wife, Phyllis (see Southern Light, illustrated here); President Jimmy Carter; and all three of the Kennedy brothers (including the president, through a commission received from Jacqueline Kennedy after his death).
Accompanied by an impressive catalogue, the Jamie Wyeth retrospective has been organized by the MFA Boston and will travel to several venues, as yet unannounced. Because his name does not appear in the media as often as it once did, younger visitors today may not know much about him. Fortunately, a picture such as Bale (illustrated above) confirms that Jamie is much more than Andy Wyeth’s son — an enormous talent in his own right. Andrew and Jamie Wyeth.