Three generations of Wyeths have created a legacy of American painting that blends realism and abstraction with a cinematic flair.
Around 1600, as the Renaissance was yielding to the Baroque period and the Dutch Golden Age of painting was in full swing, colonial settlers from Western Europe struggled to make a new start in a new land. In 1645, a stonemason by the name of Nicholas Wyeth arrived in Massachusetts from England. Among his descendents are three generations’ worth of American painters. Beginning with Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth at the turn of the 20th century, the family would grow into an artistic dynasty characterized by bravura technical skills and attention to pictorial narrative, one of the United States’ foremost artistic families, if not the most prominent. A new exhibition at The Portland Art Museum in Oregon, “The Wyeths: Three Generations, Works from the Bank of America Collection” (October 7–January 28) will detail the traditions and transformations in the family’s artistic output through 80 paintings and illustrations from N.C.’s groundbreaking illustrations to his grandson Jamie’s mysterious portraits.
The Wyeths represent both an inheritance of European tradition and an evolution of the illustration of muscular figures in action and the abstract and existential possibilities of portraits and landscapes. The presence of narrative, however, is essential to the work of all the Wyeths, as it was to the Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age. From N.C. Wyeth’s works literally illustrating stories to the emotional, psychological punch of Andrew Wyeth’s masterpiece, Christina’s World—an image so inherently dramatic and action-packed, it could be a frame grabbed from a film, whether a silent-era melodrama featuring Lillian Gish or George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—there are stories in these paintings. It is only appropriate, then, that N.C. Wyeth’s house (the Maine home which anchors the Wyeths’ regionalist work) and studio were purchased with the proceeds from his illustrations for one of the 19th century’s most iconic tales of adventure, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
N.C. Wyeth studied under the illustrator Harold Pyle and went on to become one of America’s favorite illustrators of popular tales. His work gained widespread exposure through editions of Robinson Crusoe, Kidnapped, and Rip Van Winkle and in major periodicals of the time including Harper’s Monthly and Scribner’s. The artist also created work for the adverstising campaigns for brands such as Cream of Wheat and Coca-Cola. All this outlets helped make N.C. Wyeth’s images a part of the American consciousness. His work, which built on the technically gorgeous paintings of Pyle, increased the intensity of the action, introducing new perspectival positions and giving the figures even more powerful musculature and emotional depth—a process to which Pyle opened the door by insisting that his pupils feel what they were depicting.
In the iconic illustrations the artist created for Treasure Island we see all of these characteristics in action. His 1911 oil on canvas Old Pew [tapping up and down…] is not only perhaps the illustrator’s best work—according to no less an expert than his son Andrew—but it also represents a telling point of contact with another medium: the movies. When Hollywood filmed Stevenson’s novel in 1934, Wyeth’s well-known illustrations were used as visual references, influencing the very composition of shots—an essential cinematic storytelling tool. This fact speaks to two points about Wyeth’s work, one specifically connected to Treasure Island and one more general. First, the artist’s illustrations, which accompanied the 1911 edition of Stevenson’s book, captured the spirit of the novel so well that they became inextricably linked visuals, wholly digested by our culture to the extent that they continued to accompany the novel’s story beyond the 1911 edition. The second and more general point is the seeming ease with which N.C. Wyeth’s work could be adapted to the screen. Many paintings before Wyeth’s, if adapted, would smack of stilted tableaux; Wyeth’s images, however, translated smoothly into popular cinema because they shared the verisimilitude, intensity and narrative clarity the movies were seeking. The artist’s illustrations contain characteristics that are in harmony with the best of classic Hollywood. Movies perform an impressive balancing act involving setting, perspective, psychology, realism, fantasy and narrative clarity—essential qualities of imagistic film drama as well as of good illustration.
The work of N.C. Wyeth is filled with action. Whether it is his oil on canvas Gnomes Bowling (1921) for Rip Van Winkle, in which a gnome is depicted with his arm extended post-throw, pins flying in the air, lightning crashing as his gnome brethren look on stroking their beards, or the 1944 oil on hardboard Marines Landing on the Beach, in which a group of soldiers storm a tropical beach while in the foreground a majestic G.I. holds his fallen comrade in one arm, his other arm extended to the sky in a powerful gesture evoking the Statue of Liberty. Marines Landing is both a realist snapshot of men at war and a beautifully metaphorical expression of military brotherhood. N.C. Wyeth’s works form the muscular body of the Wyeth family legacy. In both Old Pew and Marines Landing, the scene is both a realist evocation of an event and a symbolic abstraction. This tendency to move from realism to abstraction has gone on to become one of the defining elements of successive generations of Wyeth artists.
Rather than accepting the label of realist, Andrew Wyeth regarded himself as an abstractionist. What he meant by this was that by looking ever more closely at things he arrived at another, perhaps alien, perspective. This may seem at odds with the narrative legacy Andrew inherited from his father, but it suggests a transformation in step with a changing world, the world of Freud, Existentialism, and psychological realism. It also builds on the groundwork laid by the elder Wyeth’s illustrations, in which action and figures were at the same time realistic depictions and abstract essences with mythic resonance.
Andrew Wyeth’s paintings were made in a post-photographic, post-cinematic world that had been flooded with images, where narratives and drama were now no longer disseminated through literature (or via the illustrated books of his father), but now mainly through moving images.His images tell stories through setting, detail, and action, but also often through inaction. They do so in a way that combines the realism he inherited from his father, Pyle and Winslow Homer with a delicate and contemplative existential perspective. Andrew Wyeth’s work, at its best, presents a subtle psychological vision of quiet drama that has seldom been achieved in other media, though one might find its closest equivalent in the films of Eric Rohmer or Ingmar Bergman (who could have made one heck of a Helga biopic).
The abstraction Andrew Wyeth refers to exists on two levels. One has to do with his probing exploration of the people and things he painted. The artist felt that the longer he looked the closer he got (and here we find another cinematic connection, to the master of existential drama on film, Michelangelo Antonioni) The other is apparent in the unfinished edges of some of his paintings. These evoke photomontage and evince Andrew Wyeth’s post-photographic, post-cinematic place in the historical timeline of image-making. In the 1984 watercolor painting The Forge, the trees in the foreground cast shadows along the snow which are part of the painting’s realistic rendering while still retaining their calligraphic painterliness. The black strokes are watercolor smudges as much as they are shadows. In this way, Andrew Wyeth achieves something beyond the photograph or the film.
The paintings of Andrew’s son, Jamie Wyeth, continues the mingling of ideas his father explored. Jamie’s 2002 transparent and impasto watercolor portrait Lowell House features a realistically rendered young boy, but in the painting’s foreground are a murder of crows that are simply black shapes without depth or texture. As Andrew explored the line between representation and abstract line, Jamie’s paintings often combine multiple layers of depth, from the primitive flatness of folk art to large modernist shapes to the detailed realism of his grandfather. In his mixed media on board Pumkinhead Visits the Lighthouse (2000), all three tendencies come together to create the image of a human body with a pumpkin for a head. The surreal image on closer inspection is very much a part of the Wyeth universe. The setting, with its cold weatherbeaten lighthouse, is part of the Wyeth’s regionalist tradition. The pumpkin-headed figure’s torso disappearing into abstraction recalls Andrew Wyeth at his most formally radical. And the head, of course, evokes The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a Washington Irving story that N.C. didn’t illustrate. Jamie Wyeth’s work, however, also continues the Wyeth family’s cinematic affinities, bringing to mind the realist and avant-garde minglings of David Lynch and Harmony Korine.
Whether the work of the Wyeths is particularly American is hard to say. There is something about the bedrock of realism running through each generation’s successive contributions to the family legacy that seems to point toward this view. When we look back far enough though to the long heritage of European painting, it becomes apparent that it is more complex than this. The Wyeths (like many American artists) inherited European traditions, but these were transformed and expressed in a new way which was also informed by a changing world of images. Cinema comes up again and again because this predominant medium of moving images was not only influential to American artists but it also represents one of the United States largest cultural exports, a way of seeing and thinking disseminated through popular entertainment that spread across the world and continues to do so. In a way this is not American painting but Wyeth painting, in a close dialogue with itself, forming its own universe of moody regionalism and realism, abstraction and experimentation, but is also a crossroads of tradition and invention, that represents some of the best America has to offer in paint.
By Chris Shields