When Andrew Wyeth died I found myself reviewing many past thoughts and realizing a few new ones. He was by far the preeminent painter of my time, one of the first living painters I became aware of as a youth. I cannot remember the exact text, but his work was the cause of the first argument I ever had about art, and subsequently many others. His father, the fabulous N.C. Wyeth, had filled the dreams of my childhood with colors that challenged the nature of the ordinary. And that path lead back and beyond to the great Howard Pyle. Andrew Wyeth’s personal life made the national and world news. Books of his work were bestsellers and helped pay my rent during the 1970’s as I started life as a professional bookseller. But his greater importance to me was, from the first, that he made me think.
I should note that I was not always on his side. There was a vein of tragedy that ran through his work that chilled me deeper than I could find words to describe or easily cope with. When I was younger, this bleak awareness was off-putting and somehow unacceptable. But as I grew older I found an empathy for it, if not sympathy, and finally had the pleasure of re-discovery that comes when you take a fresh look at something you have taken for granted. (I have always accepted the judgment that his father’s death while crossing those railroad tracks at Chadds Ford with Andrew’s nephew Newell in 1945 was the key to that dark core. David Michaelis, who once worked at our bookshop, wrote a fine biography of N.C. Wyeth and touched on some of this.)
Lately, I have been driving south from Boston to carry my son and all his gear to and from college twice a year, and one of my daughters is working in that direction now as well, so I have good cause to stop by the wonderful Brandywine River Museum at Chadds Ford in passing and see the work of the Wyeth clan up close. It would be well worth the effort without the convenient excuse. And it is on those journeys that I have been able to come to terms with many of my previous reservations.
I have favorites: “Roasted Chestnuts,” “Cape Coat,” “Faraway,” “Snow Hill,” “Trodden Weed,” and many more. He made prolific use of his 91 years. Each time I have finally seen the original of a reproduction I liked before, I am enthralled.
My purpose here, certainly an extension of the arguments I have engaged in the past, is to say outright that Wyeth was the greatest artist of my time, and one of the greatest of any time–in easy company now with Rembrandt, Velasquez, and Caravaggio. The great pleasure of intimate exposure to his work at the Brandywine has made me understand this. And this awareness has, in turn, transferred itself to a personal sense of hope at a time of waning expectations. The world will not devolve into a primitive state of universal slavery–at least not without a fight.
Perception is the cutting edge of awareness and thus of life. We are numbed if not deadened by the humdrum of necessity. Our perceptions are dulled by repetition and order. The artist becomes the agent provocateur, the translator, the proxy, nay the Cyrano to our Christian in our appreciation of life.
Wyeth is reported to have said, “I put this pink tone on her shoulder–and it almost blew me across the room.” Our eyes are fixed by a simple color and thus by the twisted figure in the grass and thus a world we would not otherwise know.
The spirit of great art is not just the individual perception of the world but the statement that such unique perception is important and necessary. When this creative act is carried out within an established cultural context which is hostile to an individual artist’s nature, it is often the catalyst to even greater work. This was the case of Rembrandt who was both trapped and financed by the Burghers of Holland. Velasquez was a slave to Royal Hapsburg whim and yet he found space for his art within the lines of the Inquisition. Caravaggio existed at the very fringe of Papal indulgence, and yet found the means to express his own visions.
Andrew Wyeth survived as great a challenge as any of those three. Indeed, the stamp of conformity in our media driven age is enough to steal the breath from any lesser artist. Wyeth was born into a century dominated by arbiters who despised such individual expression. Picasso was their man–intimacy replaced by pornography, color abused in an absence of nature, anarchy of line because discipline might reveal a specific awareness.
Wyeth was accused of realism. Oh my God! How could he! Regionalism! How quaint. Popularity without the sanction of authority. Inexcusable! Accessibility. Ridiculous! His sins against the church of modernism are too many to count, much less countenance.
He worked in egg tempera, a medium which would have been appreciated by any great artist of the 17th Century, but beyond the patience of post-modernism or post anything. He looked at his subject again and again, for years if necessary, until he was satisfied. He understood the subtle play and betrayal of light that is invisible to the digital palette. He listened to his subject as he worked, something lost to art students with their ears clasped by headphones. This was part of his unique ability to awake all the senses through the single faculty of sight. Wyeth’s art was not an accident. His work was a discovery, first for himself, and then, through his genius, for us.
His personal life was nobody’s business but his own. The relationship of an artist to his subject is only important through what is revealed on the canvas. Bathroom habits are irrelevant to anyone but a plumber. It is perhaps interesting that his personal life even mattered to the People magazine crowd–but of course, that is a measure of his impact on a greater audience otherwise unmoved by what they had been instructed to believe was art in our times.
I found it interesting that so many news reports of his passing in January used the words “controversial artist.” There was no true controversy–no debate that could engage the intellect in any case. Wyeth’s art was his own, unarguably, and yet an unintentional affront to the shabby aesthetics of our hollow and inflated age. At the end, he was peerless.