In a series of five exhibitions from March to September, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine has launched a major tribute to American
artist and local resident, Andrew Wyeth, to honor of the celebrated painter’s one-hundredth birthday. The displays, which feature more than one hundred works, focus on
several aspects of the painter’s opus: his Maine drawings and studies for large paintings; Maine watercolors which span 1938-2008; a gallery devoted to his curious
self-portrait, Dr. Syn and the process of developing the painting from sketches and studies; photographs of the Olson House, the site for Christina’s World; and Her Room,
[which will open in the fall] which explores the process of creating this famous work. The five exhibitions are housed in several galleries in the museum itself and on both
floors of the adjacent Wyeth Center.
The Farnsworth’s long and close relationship with the Wyeth family began with patriarch N.C. Wyeth, continued to his
youngest son Andrew and now onto Andrew and Betsy Wyeth’s son Jamie. Not only did all three generations of Wyeths
maintain residences nearby in coastal Maine – N.C. Wyeth at Port Clyde, Andrew and Betsy at Cushing not far from Rockland,
and Jamie on Monheghan Island – but the Farnsworth Museum had been instrumental in recognizing Andrew Wyeth’s talent
early in the artist’s career. Andrew Wyeth’s huge success with his 1937 show of Maine watercolors at New York’s Macbeth
Gallery, established his early reputation. In 1944 before the new museum even opened its doors, it had purchased two watercolors and a drawing from Andrew Wyeth, then aged
twenty-seven, and over the years it continued to collect notable works by the artist, among them the 1964 acquisition of Her Room, one of the painter’s most famous works. In 1998 the
Farnsworth opened the Wyeth Center in a renovated church across the street from the main museum; in 2002 they added the Wyeth Study Center, and later acquired the Olson House in
Cushing – all part of a close association with America’s beloved dynasty of artists.
The scope of the Farnsworth exhibition is significant, not only because of the number and quality of the works displayed, but
because the combination of studies and finished watercolors and paintings gives a keen insight into the process which Wyeth used
to develop his completed works. The sketches – often multiple views or fragments of the single larger image – act as an artist’s
diary to capture the elements which caught his eye, the meticulous thought process he employed to build a composition, and the painstaking technique he brought to all his work.
Wyeth’s importance in American art has often been the subject of controversy. Some hold that he ranks with the great realists
and genre painters of American art like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, or Edward Hopper. Others saw him as an over-rated technician, admired because of the detail and
photographic realism of his work. The artist himself said simply of his intention, “I paint my life,” and that life was documented
in daily objects, familiar vistas, and the characters and natural phenomena who peopled his world. But as in his arguably most famous work, Christina’s World, where that world is occupied by
a lone woman and a solitary distant house, it is the suggestion of a vast universe far beyond the canvas that mesmerizes the
viewer, just as it seems to hold the disabled Christina in its thrall.
Andrew Wyeth was born July 12, 1917, the youngest of five children of illustrator and artist N. C. Wyeth and his wife
Carolyn. A frail child, he was home schooled, and his famous father became his only art teacher. In many ways his childhood
was sheltered, but N.C. Wyeth’s celebrity brought other famous personages to the family homes in Chadds Ford, PA, and Port
Clyde, ME, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mary Pickford. Wyeth enjoyed a phenomenal success with his first one-man
show of Maine watercolors at New York’s Macbeth Gallery in 1937. Every piece sold, and overnight, the artist saw himself
established on the national art scene. Andrew Wyeth married Betsy James, who hailed from Cushing, ME, in 1940, and together they had two children, Nicholas and Jamie, and it was
Jamie who went on to carry on the family’s artistic tradition, while Betsy with her strong business acumen remained a major
influence on her husband’s career and keeper of his legacy. The death of his father in a tragic accident in 1945- (the senior
Wyeth’s car stalled on the railroad tracks and was struck by a train) – took a deep toll on Andrew and emotionally catapulted
him into coalescing his mature artistic style.
The two galleries which feature the numerous pencil and chalk studies Wyeth did for his finished paintings house a fascinating
selection of subtle, understated, yet beautifully observed and executed works. All the works are set in Maine, and they
demonstrate Wyeth’s strong affinity for the look and energy of the place in landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. “Maine for me is
like going to the surface of the moon,” Wyeth once said, “There is always a sense of things hovering.” And indeed, in many of
these drawings - be it in the composition, unusual perspective, or gaze of the sitter - there is an air of mystery that swirls around
the very concrete and tangible realism. Perhaps no where is this more evident than in the misty, atmospherically lit study, Night Nurse, in which a white figure and white bench are silhouetted
against the dark sky, enveloped in cottony fog.
Among the landscapes is a 1966 pencil study for Far from Needham, which depicts a scrubby but courageous pine poking
through the crevice of a large boulder that occupies center of the composition. In the foreground are two small sheep, dwarfed by
the stark geometry of the rock. The texture is soft focus, as if the artist is concentrating on the composition in this study rather than the texture or surface detail.
In New Moon Study (1985) Wyeth appears to be examining the chiaroscuro of the work, which he combines with asymmetrical
angles of the houses, lighted window and horizontal horizon line to create an arresting effect.
Wyeth’s approach to portraiture is showcased in a tender study of Betsy, who turns her head away from the viewer, her
windswept blond hair obscuring her face and directing the observer’s interest toward the unfinished suggestion of the sea.
The texture and the ability to use pencil line to create light and shade is remarkable. Another portrait of one of his favorite
subjects, his Cushing neighbor Christina Olson, depicts the sitter’s strong features and sturdy form. Seated as she is in three
-quarter profile, her gaze seems sidelong, engaging the viewer with a silent knowing air. Yet another portrait that commands
attentions is of the fourteen year-old SIri Erickson, a girl the artist met while attending Christina’s funeral. Her plain but
strong features, no doubt, recalled for Wyeth what had fascinated him about Christina Olson, and Erickson became a
favorite model in the years following Christina’s death. In an early study in the exhibit she is shown with a cat clutched to her
chest, and the artist focuses the scrutiny on her face, suggesting the hair and background only in hasty crosshatching.
The gallery devoted to Dr. Syn includes the numerous studies Wyeth made and the objects from which he drew, including the
bizarre skeleton incorporated into the 1981 tempera painting, which Wyeth described as a “portrait of the artist. “
The surreal figure, based on the swashbuckling fictional character of Russell Thorndike tales, is depicted as a skeleton in
a 19th century naval frock coat who sits staring through a double window while on the floor behind him are block and tackle and
telescope, and other naval instruments. The studies in pencil, watercolor, and the final tempera work show how Wyeth often
broke his concept into fragmented parts and examined each of these closely – in this case, from numerous perspectives –
before assembling the composition and selecting its point of view.
The Maine watercolors on display at the Wyeth Center present a selection, arranged chronologically from 1939-2008, of some of
the artist’s finest Maine works on paper. One notes the gradual evolution of his style from more sweeping, romantic, and loose
brushwork in the 1930s and 40s to increasingly painstaking, linear, and textured use of the medium, more akin to his tempera paintings. The 1942 Alvaro on the Doorstep shows the
Olson house with Christina’s brother on the front stoop gazing off into the distance. The palette is neutrals – greys, blacks,
whites with ample use of wash to soft focus the piece. On the other hand the 1982 Barn Nap, has a hard-edged linearity to it
and a sharp focus, almost photographic contrast. It shows a white dory eerily silhouetted against the dark black wall of a
barn into which a sliver of light is emitted from the cracked open door. In the dory lies a man asleep, but his stillness and the light give the entire scene a ghostly air.
This photographic detail in the later Wyeth watercolors (and of course, in his temperas), makes an excellent segue into the final
gallery with actual photographs by other artists of the Olson house and the vistas Wyeth used in his works. Among the many
stunning images, are James Moore’s 1963 black/white portraits of Christina and Alvaro Olson which suggest some of the same
chiaroscuro and poses as Wyeth’s other drawings; George Tice’s 1970 Window Olson House which angles the six paned aperture
with two shells in the upper panes just slightly off center to create a fascinating irregularity; and Paul Caponigro’s 1990
photograph of the house at night – a dark sepulchral presence pierced with rectangles of light against a gray and cloudy sky.
But perhaps the most moving photograph of all is Peter Ralston’s 1990 “Their World”, which relegates the Olson house
to the foggy background in the upper third of the composition, devoting the foreground to an expanse of white snow in which
there stands to the right a black single tombstone, at the base of which a tiny tuft of foliage pokes through the frozen ground. It
is an image of Andrew Wyeth’s grave. The artist, who died in 2009, chose to be buried next to the Olson family cemetery on a
little bluff overlooking Maple Juice Cove in Cushing. In its quiet and dignified sadness, it serves, as what the photographer called his “last portrait of Andy.”
Wyeth’s centennial has been and will, no doubt, continue to be celebrated with numerous exhibitions and visual tributes, but
the series of works collected at the Farnsworth represents an especially heartfelt and personal look at an artist who was not
only a major figure in modern American art, but a life long neighbor, friend and benefactor. The Maine works on view in Andrew Wyeth at 100 allow the viewer to glimpse of this corner
of the world through the artist’s eyes, to enter his thought processes, to understand better his technical methods, and to
experience his deep and abiding connection to the land and people, animals and objects that shaped that world.
The series of exhibitions runs from March 18-December 31, 2017 in the USA at the Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum St., Rockland, ME.