Painter Andrew Wyeth dies at 91 in Pa. home

Works of rural life made him one of America's best-loved artists

January 17, 2009|By Los Angeles Times

Andrew Wyeth, whose durable and realistic paintings of rural Pennsylvania and Maine made him one of America's best-loved artists, and made his paintings some of the priciest in the world, died yesterday. He was 91.

Mr. Wyeth, who divided his time between Chadds Ford, Pa., and Cushing, Maine, died in his sleep at his home in Pennsylvania, the Brandywine River Museum told the Associated Press.

Hundreds of Mr. Wyeth's paintings are displayed at the museum. In 2006, a retrospective of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art attracted more than 175,000 visitors in about four months.

Although critics frequently disparaged his watercolor and tempera landscapes and portraits as "painting with a camera," and some characterized him as a Norman Rockwell wannabe, Mr. Wyeth - like Mr. Rockwell - caught the artistic eye of Middle America.

Two of Mr. Wyeth's subjects captured wide attention. In 1948, he completed Christina's World, which many critics and admirers consider his most enduring work. In it, dark-haired Christina Olson, a woman who was Mr. Wyeth's neighbor in Maine, crawls through tawny grass toward a weathered farmhouse. The technical virtuosity of the painting and the haunting loneliness of the scene proved to be hallmarks of Mr. Wyeth's style. It is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

More than 30 years later, Mr. Wyeth attracted a different kind of attention when his several hundred paintings and drawings of Helga Testorf, many of them nudes, were first displayed. The large number of works and the palpable charge that runs through them suggest more than a simple artist-and-model rapport. The unveiling led to magazine cover stories, a traveling exhibition and careful explanations by Mr. Wyeth about his relationship with Ms. Testorf.

Throughout his career of more than seven decades, Mr. Wyeth remained a figurative painter who prospered even in times when the genre was considered passe. He was tapped to paint the official portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and became a favorite of President Richard M. Nixon, who hosted a dinner for Mr. Wyeth at the White House in 1970 when an exhibit of his work went on exhibit there. Mr. Nixon toasted Mr. Wyeth as an artist whose "painting has caught the heart of America" and added that "certainly tonight the heart of America belongs to Andrew Wyeth."

Former Los Angeles Times art critic William Wilson called Mr. Wyeth "a votive image of American traditionalism."

"At best Wyeth is sensitive, neurotic and accurate," Mr. Wilson said. "His existence as an American phenomenon cannot be discounted."

The artist's popularity was instantaneous. In 1937, at age 20, Mr. Wyeth had his first one-man show in New York's William Macbeth Gallery. All 23 watercolors sold by the second day.

Mr. Wyeth, however, felt he became a serious artist only after the 1945 death of his father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, whose stalled car was struck by a train near his home.

"When he died," Mr. Wyeth told his biographer, Richard Meryman, "I was just a clever watercolorist - lots of swish and swash."

Resolved to take his talent more seriously, he added: "I had always had this great emotion toward the landscape, and so, with his death ... the landscape took on a meaning - the quality of him."

Making landscape a subject in his work, Mr. Wyeth included people in such paintings so that each helped reveal the other. Faraway, a 1952 painting, shows Mr. Wyeth's young son, Jamie, now an artist in his own right, sitting in a vast, empty field. The child wears a coonskin hat that suggests a vivid imagination but sits alone with his arms wrapped around his knees as if to protect himself.

Mr. Wyeth's portraits of the farmer Kurt Kuerner and his wife, Anna, neighbors in Pennsylvania, capture the bleak undertones of rural life. One of his best-known paintings, Ground Hog Day (1959), shows the Kuerner dining room with its faded wallpaper and its table set for one. Outside the window, a split log with jagged edges points ominously at the house. The work recalls poems by Robert Frost, who intimated the dark side of American rural life in some of his writing.

As Mr. Wyeth advanced toward artistic maturity, his work was in ever greater demand: His Marsh Hawk, painted in 1964, was sold by Sotheby Park Bernet in 1981 for $420,000, at the time the record price for a painting by a living American artist.

He also became a top attraction at leading museums. A touring retrospective of his art in 1966 drew record crowds at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where nearly 175,000 people saw the exhibition. In New York City, the show was extended by a week to accommodate the more than 260,000 people who saw it at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 1976, he became the first living American artist to be given a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The show featured paintings, drawings and sketches of his most frequent subjects, his neighbors, the Olsons and the Kuerners.

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