Andrew Wyeth (born 1917) remains one of the most popular American painters of his time. His paintings, meticulously rendered, convey a deep sympathy for people and a sense of the hardness and brevity of life.
Andrew Newell Wyeth came to painting by birth and inheritance. He was born July 12, 1917, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the son of Newell Convers and Carolyn Wyeth. His father was the great illustrator of such childhood classics as Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Andrew was a weak and sickly child. His formal schooling consisted of three months in the first grade of a country grammar school. Thereafter, he studied some at home, although he never really mastered spelling. Mostly, he roamed the countryside in solitude or stayed in the house playing with tin soldiers. Imbued with the love of narrative that shines from his father's work, Andrew spent almost a year creating a miniature theater. They were the players, sets, and costumes for a one-man production of Arthur Conan Doyle's romance The White Company, which he presented to the family at age 15. Deeply impressed by Andrew's virtuosity, his father immediately took him on as apprentice and student.
When Wyeth was ten his family began spending summers in Maine, a tradition the artist has continued his entire life. During his teenage years, Wyeth's early forays into watercolor painting were of the Maine landscape and ocean vistas, and with these he enjoyed his first one-man show at New York's William Macbeth Gallery in 1937. All of the works were sold, but Wyeth felt almost disheartened by his early success. He began to experiment with rendering the human form, perhaps the most difficult of all subjects. As an exercise, his father recommended that he sketch a skeleton from every possible angle.
His work as a young American artist of this period set him apart from his contemporaries, who were busy experimenting with more radical, abstract styles. Noted art critic John Russell remarked to Newsweek that Wyeth's "work has always had a secret and subterranean motivation, conscious or unconscious, which surfaces in strange and unexpected ways."
In 1945 Wyeth's father was killed at a railroad crossing in Chadds Ford, and the sudden death made Wyeth resolve to take his artistic career more seriously. He began to use models, often painting them over several years, a practice which he began in 1939 when he met Christina Olson. The Maine woman was a friend of Betsy Merle James, who would later become Wyeth's wife. Olson was paralyzed from polio, and Wyeth's image of her in a field, Christina's World (1948), is perhaps his most famous work. He continued to render Olson, or her Maine house, in a series of works that stretched on until the late 1960s, including Miss Olson (1952) and Weather Side (1965).
Wyeth and his wife Betsy bought a set of farm buildings in Chadds Ford dating back to the 18th century and restored it as a studio for him and a home for the couple and their two sons, Jamie and Nicholas. (Jamie would eventually become a painter himself). In the late 1940s Wyeth became fascinated with Karl Kuerner, a farmer of German origin who lived nearby, and Wyeth painted images of Kuerner and his property, as well as his wife Anna, over the next few decades. In Maine, where the Wyeth family spent the summer months, the artist also befriended another neighbor who became a frequent subject. Teenaged Siri Erickson was the subject of several portraits that Wyeth painted during the 1960s.
Most major American museums have examples of Wyeth's work. He was given a large retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1967. Earlier, and for many years, he was more or less systematically ignored by American art officials, although not by critics, because his work seemed so completely removed from mainstream American art. President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1963, and The National Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed its 1965 gold medal for Wyeth's artistic achievements. In 1970 Wyeth then had a one-man exhibition in the White House, the first ever held there.
Wyeth's name, however, remains best associated in the public's mind with the "Helga" media event of 1986. Apparently, the artist had been sketching and painting a German immigrant by the name of Helga Testorf since the early 1970s. A friend of the Kuerners, she also worked as a cleaning woman for Wyeth's sister. With her reddish-blond hair, Teutonic face, and twin braids, Helga made a quietly enigmatic subject, and Wyeth's obsession with her as a subject eventually numbered 240 works of art—supposedly without the knowledge of his wife. In early 1986 he invited Leonard E.B. Andrews, an American art collector who had previously acquired a few Wyeths, into his studio; Andrews later recalled that he was overwhelmed by the drama of the cache, and asserted that the works as a whole were a "national treasure." He purchased the Helga series in its entirety. The stern visage of Helga, as depicted by Wyeth in the 1979 tempera Braids, appeared on magazine covers throughout the summer of 1986 in the sensationalist stories that accompanied the unleashing of such a large, secret stash of paintings by an acclaimed American artist.
Later Andrews reportedly tried to sell the series to a buyer in Japan for $45 million, having paid only $6 million for them in 1986. It mirrored a trend in the collection of Wyeth's work, as Japanese high bidders were eagerly carting his paintings off at auctions when they appeared. "They like em; they deserve em," Wyeth noted in a 1990 interview with Thomas Hoving, former Metropolitan Museum Art director, featured in Connoisseur. Then 73, Wyeth was still painting, but the artist "has changed in one significant way," asserted Hoving. "He is now bathing his paintings with real light, what the French would call plein air." For example, in Snow Hill (1987) anonymous figures dance in the snow around a maypole, and Wyeth called it a summation of his career as an artist. "I've never said anything about it other than to say that it's all the people I've painted who mean a great deal to me—Karl and Anna Kuerner …, Helga … and X.' It's Kuerner's farm and the railroad tracks where my father was killed." Wyeth admitted that he had tried to infuse the landscape with the spirit of his father. "I got enamored with it and I painted on it like mad. It is my [19th-century French artist Gustave] Courbet's Studio, in which all his models are there, watching. My models are watching me and dancing because they all hope I'm dead. Ha! I'm there, but I'm gone."
The best book on Wyeth is Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth (1968). All the major paintings, as well as a number of the dry-brush watercolors, are reproduced in excellent color. In the text Wyeth discusses the people and places of his paintings. A specialized study is Agnes Mongan, Andrew Wyeth: Dry Brush and Pencil Drawings (1966).
See also Thomas Hoving, Andrew Wyeth: autobiography by Andrew Wyeth, 1995; John Wilmerding, Andrew Wyeth: the Helga Picgtures, 1987; Gene Logsdon Wyeth People: a Portrait of Andrew Wyeth as Seen by His Friends and Neighbors, 1971.