When Andrew Wyeth died at ninety-one, he was probably the most popular and familiar artist in America, recognized along with Edward Hopper as one of the preeminent realists of the twentieth century. Wyeth’s prolific output spanned seven decades, and included many unforgettable and haunting images. Several displayed great power; a few attained iconic status, beginning with his early masterpiece, “Christina’s World,” 1948, in the Museum of Modern Art, now one of the signature pictures in its collection. Emblematic of Wyeth’s art, it captures the sense of alienation and loneliness emergent in modern America.
High esteem and honors came to Wyeth from a young age onward. Two years after his first sold out exhibition, in 1940 the American Watercolor Society elected him at twenty-three their youngest member ever. Twenty years later he was again the youngest admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The American Academy of Arts and Letters honored him several times: with the Award of Merit in 1947, the youngest member elected in 1955, and the Gold Medal for “preeminence in painting” in 1965. Over his lifetime he received twenty-three honorary degrees. The Soviet Academy of the Arts in Leningrad and the French Academie des Beaux Arts admitted him to membership, and in 1980 he was the first living American artist to have an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Several U.S. presidents honored Wyeth: with the Medal of Freedom (Kennedy), first solo exhibition in The White House (Nixon), Presidential Gold Medal (Reagan and G. H. W. Bush), and the National Medal of Arts (G. W. Bush).
Wyeth’s art was both apart from his time and a part of his time. Because he was a consistent realist of magical precision, critics saw his work as out of sync with the trajectory of modernist abstraction. His style was shaped first by his father N.C. Wyeth, preeminent as an illustrator, who took Andy at fifteen into his studio for training. The son’s art would soon move away from the illustrator’s tradition to paintings in watercolor and later egg tempera that were less prose and more poetry in their economy, suggestion, and nuance. America’s two great masters of the nineteenth century, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, respectively shaped Wyeth’s landscapes and figure paintings. Like them, Wyeth stayed close to home to find his subjects. Once, he expressed admiration for Emily Dickinson, whose small poems written in her rooms at Amherst embraced the cosmos. Wyeth’s imaginative landscape similarly derived from a few square miles he experienced in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, or on the coast of Maine near Cushing and Port Clyde.
While his artistic vision was far-reaching, Wyeth’s actual travel was limited. He visited relatives in the southwest, and often went to museums along the east coast. His one trip abroad was to France where he was honored, and to England to see his work on exhibition. (He made a side visit to Sherwood Forest in Nottingham to see the landscapes of his father’s books, but the reality was disappointing.) Wyeth’s realist style first parallels the regionalists and precisionists of the 1940s, and in particular the work of Hopper, whom he admired most among contemporaries. But Wyeth’s long career also overlapped the various realist currents resurgent in recent decades. Paradoxically, his abstract sensibility also relates to modernism in the consciousness of formal design and simplification, spatial flattening and psychological expressiveness. Some historians have even compared the empty field of abstracted grasses in “Christina’s World” with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings of the same time. Wyeth’s best art went beyond observation into imagination, with its vertiginous points of view, claustrophobic spaces, and objects in landscapes standing for people.
Andy Wyeth had a puckish sense of humor, and loved costumes and make-believe games. There was also a dark strain in his art, a constant sense of mortality, in part fed by periodic traumas in his life: the death of his father and nephew in a train-crossing accident and critical surgeries on a lung, hip, and painting hand. He worked actively up to his last months, when a fall led to complications and his death in January 2009. He had finished a final tempera the preceding September, a scene off his Maine island with a lone figure sailing away in a small sloop at the picture’s edge. It is titled “Goodbye.”