American painter. Owing to his fragile health he was taught at home as a child by tutors and by his father Newell Convers Wyeth (1882–1945), a distinguished illustrator who gave him a rigorous training in draughtsmanship. In about 1933 he first saw the watercolours of Winslow Homer, prompting him to paint impressionistic watercolours that captured fleeting effects of light and movement, as in the Coot Hunter (1941; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.). He first exhibited in 1936 at the Art Alliance of Philadelphia and the following year had his first one-man show, of watercolours, at the Macbeth Gallery in New York, which sold out on the first day. In 1943 Wyeth received a lucrative offer to paint occasional covers for the Saturday Evening Post, as his father had done, but he refused, wishing to devote himself to more independent art.
Wyeth’s earliest works were in pen and ink and watercolour but by the early 1940s he had begun to use egg tempera on gesso board, a technique he had learnt from his brother-in-law, the American painter Peter Hurd (b 1904). In this painstaking technique he found a good counterbalance to his natural inclination towards swift, spontaneous execution. For similar reasons he also began to use drybrush watercolour, in which a fine brush is squeezed almost dry of liquid before use. Nevertheless, watercolour remained as a means of catching observations quickly and for studies. Early examples of temperas include Public Sale (1943; Bryn Mawr, PA, H. W. Breyer priv. col., see 1967 exh. cat., p. 15). In 1945 Wyeth’s father was killed in a railway accident and this tragedy gave greater emphasis to the introspective, melancholy strain developing in Wyeth’s work. This is apparent in such temperas as Christina’s World (1948; New York, MOMA), which depicts the cripple Christina Olson in the midst of a vast expanse of grassland looking wistfully back at her house. Olson was a model for many of Wyeth’s works until her death in 1969. The drybrush work Faraway (1952; Jamie Wyeth priv. col., see Meryman, p. 51) of his son Jamie was the first Wyeth thought successful in this medium.
From the 1950s and into the 1970s Wyeth regularly painted the farm owned by Karl and Anna Kuerlner in Chadds Ford, as in Brown Swiss (1957; see Meryman, p. 57), which was named after the Brown Swiss cattle included in the scene. While continuing to paint landscapes the artist began to produce portraits in the 1960s, for example the drybrush Up in the Studio (1965; New York, Met.) depicting his sister Carolyn, who was also a painter. On occasions he mixed the media of drybrush and watercolour, as in Garrett Room (1962; artist’s col., see Meryman, p. 26), which after beginning as a fluid watercolour was completed in drybrush. Between 1971 and 1985 Wyeth secretly made numerous drawings and paintings, including nudes, of Helga Testorf, a neighbour in Chadds Ford. Almost 100 of these so-called ‘Helga pictures’ were exhibited from 1987 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and elsewhere.
Wyeth’s style and subject-matter changed little throughout his career, and the restrained earth colours that characterized his earlier work were continued in later paintings such as Ring Road (1985; priv. col., see 1987 exh. cat., p. 147). His work was enormously popular in the USA, and as a mark of this he was given a large retrospective in 1976 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the first time a living American artist had been accorded such an honour. With the critics, however, his reputation was less secure, largely because his style and subject-matter fell outside the avant-garde developments of American art. Travelling very little, he spent his life almost entirely in the Maine and Pennsylvania regions of the USA. To many his accessible paintings evoke some mythical rural past, striking a powerful chord in the American psyche. Like Dürer, whom he greatly admired, he placed great emphasis on observation, and his detailed style reflects this. Nevertheless, through the series of pencil and watercolour studies for a work, many details were often pared away.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press