Jamie Wyeth gets a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston that looks beyond his status as American art royalty.
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“Many artists are precocious,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas, citing a list of examples, while discussing a portrait painted by Jamie Wyeth when he was 17. The control and precision of an image like this is shocking at first, especially for such a young artist, but innate talent isn’t—perhaps even less so for an artist whose father painted Christina’s World (1948).
The painting, Portrait of Shorty (1963), is a depiction of a middle-aged man seen from the shoulders up, wearing a ratty white tank top and sitting in a chair upholstered in luxurious gold brocade. The interplay of shadow and light reveals the furrowing above his brow, the wrinkles around his puffy eyes, the scruff on his chin, and the ruddy tan around his neck in precise detail. Weathered and pensive, Shorty looks beautiful, in a realist style that recalls the vivid portraiture of Van Eyck and Copley rather than the sun-washed watercolors of Andrew Wyeth. “When you can do that at 17,” says Davis, “where do you go? How does a creative person evolve?”
These questions shape the MFA’s upcoming exhibition (July 16–December 28) “Jamie Wyeth,” the artist’s first major retrospective. The son of Andrew Wyeth, grandson of Newell Convers “N.C.” Wyeth, and nephew of Carolyn Wyeth, Henriette (Wyeth) Hurd, Peter Hurd, and John McCoy—all painters—Jamie honed his skill rigorously and was recognized for it early. The show, featuring over 100 compositions, covers an evolution that has played out over six decades, with drawings from Wyeth’s childhood, pieces made in his 20s when he was hanging out with Warhol at the Factory, landscapes and seascapes of Maine’s midcoast (an area with which his family has long been affiliated), and 1/6th-life-size three-dimensional tableaux constructed only in the last couple of years. The expansiveness of the exhibition sheds a new light on the oeuvre of an artist who has mostly been shown either in the context of his family’s work or his regional associations with the Brandywine River School or the coast of Maine. A leading figure in the Realist tradition of the second half of the 20th century, Wyeth is portrayed in the exhibition as a young adept who evolved into a versatile, assiduous, and sprightly American painter.
Wyeth, who was raised in Chadds Ford, Pa.—in the Brandywine Valley area near Delaware where the family had taken root over three generations—left school at 11 to pursue arts training with his Aunt Carolyn in his grandfather’s former studio (N.C., famed as an illustrator, painter, and teacher, died the year before Jamie was born). Fascinated by the “edible” quality the paints had when his aunt squeezed them out of the tube, Wyeth was drawn to oil painting and continued, like his grandfather, to use oil as his primary medium throughout his career, while dabbling in others including his father’s preferred media of watercolor and tempera.
In 1965, at the age of 19, Wyeth left the nest and moved to New York, where he quickly fell in with Lincoln Kirstein, a prominent collector, balletomane, and long-time family friend who had championed the purchase of Christina’s World by the Museum of Modern Art in 1948. Kirstein became the subject of one of Wyeth’s portraits and also introduced the artist to Dr. Emanuel B. Kaplan, a hand surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, who got Wyeth into the city’s morgues so he could study human anatomy up close. Wyeth developed a friendship with Andy Warhol, whom he met through Peter Beard in the mid-’60s, and became familiar with the goings-on at the Factory—reputedly a livelier place than the morgue. He would later reconstruct scenes from his days around the Factory from memory in works like the oil on canvas Fred Hughes and Andy Warhol (2005) and the 3-D multimedia assemblage Factory Dining Room (2013). In 1975, Wyeth and Warhol decided to paint one another’s portraits, an exchange that culminated in a 1976 joint show at the Coe Kerr Gallery. Warhol, who was trained as a commercial artist, a vocation that necessitates precision, admired Wyeth’s technical skill. Wyeth, who saw Warhol as a major influence, admired the king of Pop’s representational, realist style.
Another fellow artist whom Wyeth encountered at the Factory was Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bodybuilder, who worked his muscles like human clay to form his massive physique, posed for Wyeth in 1977. Portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most Pop of Wyeth’s paintings, painted during a time when Warhol’s influence was at its height. Tanned and poised in front of a crinkled white linen sheet, Schwarzenegger observes his flexed bicep with placid approval. The painting recalls the body worship of Greek sculpture, while creating a trompe l’oeil effect with the sheet. At once reverential and lighthearted, if not silly, the way the portrait conveys the impressiveness and ridiculousness of Schwarzenegger is almost uncanny.
Wyeth’s great skill is his ability to capture depth in his subject matter. He achieves this quality by immersing himself in his subject’s nature and tendencies. When tasked with painting an “unofficial” posthumous portrait (he turned down the official commission) of John F. Kennedy by the Kennedy family, Wyeth insisted on watching all the available material of the president on film—still or motion—as well as following his brothers Robert and Edward around for gestural clues. The painting Portrait of John F. Kennedy (1967) is the product of sketches upon sketches of the president and his brothers. In a 1997 interview Wyeth described his nearly obsessive relationships with his subjects, saying “I try to become the person I’m painting. A successful portrait isn’t about the sitter’s physical characteristics—his nose, eyeballs, and whatnot—but more the mood and the overall effect. I try not to impose anything of mine on him. I try to get to the point where if the sitter painted, he’d paint a portrait just the way I’m doing it.”
Though it seems limiting to call Wyeth a portrait painter, as his output goes far beyond pictures of humans posing, even his non-portrait work has the piercing intimacy one might associate with portraiture. Wyeth’s 1972 oil Bale is a rural landscape that features a sunlit bale of hay in the foreground. There is a humor to the audacity of making this bale of hay so important, and yet it bears a scruffy sort of dignity. The way Wyeth renders the bale, it seems as though it intrinsically had star quality, a personality that made it stand out from the other bales. It seems special in itself, not because it was just the bale that happened to get painted. Humor and non-human subject matter are prevalent in Wyeth’s many animal portraits, such as his dog in Kleberg (1984); The Islander (1975), a picture of a fluffy ram gazing at the water from a hill; and Homer (2003), a shaggy terrier rendered in front of a blue sea in watercolor and gouache on toned rag board.
Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine (2007), is an energetic oil that features jack-o’-lanterns swirling and crashing amid the sea, rocks, and cliffs of Monhegan Island in Maine, where he set up his studio in 1968. Though the palette is vividly real, the surrealist quality of the seascape seems to show the influence of his Aunt Carolyn, who had a tendency to subvert her compositions by painting them off-kilter. Pumpkins, a fascination of Wyeth’s, are represented in many of his works in homage to his grandfather’s partiality toward Halloween, and as a hearty celebration of the holiday. Though Wyeth is very much his own painter, his stylistic tics and preoccupations are deeply linked to his family. “Jamie Wyeth,” the exhibition is an opportunity for viewers to appreciate this artist’s extensive oeuvre on its own merits. However, if the work of one Wyeth is not enough, “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” runs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through November 30—timed, perhaps, so as not to interfere with trick-or-treating.