In the Spring of 2007, celebrated auction house Christie’s New York presented sale #1938: Important American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture. The lots included works by Mary Cassatt, Norman Rockwell, Edward Henry Potthast, and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others. The bidding was brisk, and by the end of the day, 139 of the 162 lots had sold. The O’Keeffe watercolor, an abstract blue spiral titled Blue I, fetched more than $3 million, while Mary Cassatt’s Children Playing with a Dog sold for $6.2 million. Both sales shattered their highest pre-auction estimates. But while the O’Keeffe and Cassatt works were playful and vibrant, the day’s top lot was an image of haunting loneliness rendered in a palette of soft pinks and grays.
Seeing Red // Andrew Wyeth, Cranberries. Watercolor on paper, 1966.
Painted in 1973, Andrew Wyeth’s Ericksons depicts the artist’s rural Maine neighbor and frequent subject, George Erickson. The man sits in his kitchen, staring pensively to his right as the light from an unseen window illuminates his face. In the background a white coffee cup rests atop a black wood stove and a long hallway stretches deep into the house towards a slightly open door behind which, as the artist said, “something mysterious, perhaps unwholesome,” might await. The pre-auction estimate for the painting ranged between $4 million and $6 million. But when the gavel finally fell, the bidding had reached $10,344,000—a new record for the artist and a reflection of what one reviewer described as a “quintessential piece of Americana.”
Deer One // Andrew Wyeth, Jacklight. Egg tempera on panel, 1980.
Andrew Wyeth grew up in a red brick building his father N.C. Wyeth, the famous illustrator, built for the family in 1911 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Andrew was the youngest of five children and his skill as an artist was guided by his father. But while N.C.’s works were chock-full of action and drama, Andrew’s pieces depicted absence, silence, and desperation—snowy landscapes under darkened skies, a lonely barn, a fishing net hung out to dry. Andrew painted his surroundings, the countryside, the architecture, the neighbors, the hardscrabble life of Chadds Ford and rural Maine where he divided his time. One of his most famous paintings, Christina’s World, has become an American icon. Now in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, the 1948 work narrates Wyeth’s Maine neighbor Christina Olson, crippled from the waist down, dragging herself across a field toward a gray house in the distance.
During his life, Andrew enjoyed wide success, but was often bashed by critics for that exact reason. In the 1950s, contemporary art opinion was embracing abstract expressionism and considered Wyeth a throwback. Some critics called him too popular and too sentimental. And while some, such as writer John Updike and late director of MoMA Thomas Hoving, championed Wyeth’s work, others rode the fence. One art historian, in response to an Art News magazine survey about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, nominated Wyeth for both categories. A better assessment of Wyeth’s work comes from the late art historian and curator Robert Rosenblum who said, “at once the most overestimated painter by the public and the most underestimated painter by the knowing art audience . . . a creator of very, very haunting images that nobody who hates him can get out of their minds.” Yet perhaps the best, and most personal assessment comes from his son. “I love my father’s work but I think he is a very peculiar and strange painter,” Jamie Wyeth says while strolling through the Greenville County Museum of Art’s Wyeth Dynasty exhibition. Celebrating the centennial of Andrew Wyeth’s birth, the showcase features more than seventy works by Andrew, his father, N. C., his son Jamie, and his sisters Carolyn and Henriette—commonly referred to as the “first family of American painting.”
Jamie gestures to one of his father’s pieces. It’s titled Dusk, painted five years after Ericksons and depicts a three-story home surrounded by dreary landscape. “What I find fascinating about my father’s work is that a lot of people miss the fact that it’s very strange,” Jamie says. “People look at his work and say ‘Oh, look, how realistic.’ But he’s no more realistic than Picasso. If you look at his work, they are airless little worlds, they are crystalline. Everything is in very sharp focus. The places that I knew where he worked and where I grew up are quite different than what you see in his paintings. I equate it with Robert Frost. People say ‘Oh, what beautiful poems talking about a snowy woods.’ But if you really read them they are terrifying. They’re no more about woods and snow than the man in the moon. I think my father’s work is very edgy. I wish I were as strange as he.”
Luck of the Draw // A self-portrait (circa 1945) by Andrew Wyeth, one of the most celebrated American painters of the twentieth century. Wyeth specialized in Regionalism, a subgenre of realism that took hold between the Great Depression and World War II.
Truth be told, Jamie is not lacking in the strange department. Wearing a chalk-striped blazer, blue flannel shirt, breeches, and two different types of socks—one of which is adorned with Albert Einstein illustrations—Jamie stops at one of his own works titled A Recurring Dream. “This is a dream that I had shortly after my father died,” Jamie says. “I had the dream so many times I really thought it had happened. I was walking over these cliffs on a stormy evening and there were these two figures, and as I got nearer it turned out to be my father and my grandfather. I think this is the third of the group. The first is owned by Stephen King, who calls me a very creepy painter.”
New Religion // Jamie Wyeth, The Steeple Salesman. Oil on board, 2012.
As he continues through the gallery, Jamie picks up a bowl of nuts from a table set for an evening reception. “They won’t notice, will they,” he says to no one in particular. While picking out the cashews from the bowl, Jamie approaches another of his works, a nude portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing a bicep behind a conveniently placed floral arrangement.
Rising Son // Jamie Wyeth, Sister Parish and Mister Universe. Oil on panel, 2011.
The work is titled Sister Parish and Mr. Universe. “This is an interesting piece,” Jamie says. “A friend of mine did a film called Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He brought him to my studio and said ‘You have to paint him.’” So I ended up painting him in my apartment in New York overlooking Central Park.” Jamie painted Schwarzenegger in his 5th Avenue apartment and in the Factory, Andy Warhol’s famous New York studio. “Warhol and I shared a studio together,” Jamie says. “And when we would go out to dinner some place, Andy would always end up in the corner, hiding, drinking consommé.” Jamie points to another of his works, titled Consommé, which shows Andy Warhol sitting alone in a crowded room, delicately sipping from a large white cup.
Dream World // Consommé is Jamie Wyeth’s tribute to friend and studio mate Andy Warhol.
Jamie still enjoys the pace of Manhattan, but now divides his time almost equally between the farm in Chadds Ford and an island twenty miles off of Maine’s coast. “I think the isolation is important,” Jamie says. “I want to see every theatre production, every movie and whatnot, and to work, you’ve got to isolate yourself to get some concentration. An island sure does that. You can’t just jump in your car and drive off. And people don’t stop by on an island. It’s given me more focus. But then I spend time in New York, and that’s as much an island as the island in Maine. I mean you can be just as isolated there. That’s why Warhol always fascinated me because to me he represented New York and yet he was almost anonymous. He could blend in and disappear.”
Dream World // A Recurring Dream is part of a series representing a dream he had of his father, Andrew, and grandfather, N.C.
Jamie started painting as a young child, and soon found it to be the only thing occupying his mind. At age eleven, he convinced his parents to let him quit school in exchange for tutoring at home in the mornings and artistic study with his Aunt Carolyn in the afternoons. “My father felt the need that I should have formal training, so I spent a year with my aunt, his sister,” Jamie says. “That was cool because it was in my grandfather’s studio so all the costumes were there, and it was magical for a child to see all this.”
Jamie’s grandfather Newell Convers “N.C.” Wyeth died in a tragic car accident in Chadds Ford the year before Jamie was born. A larger than life figure, N.C. was described as a “swashbuckler of a man” by some, and by his children, a kindly tyrant of a father. Also one of the most famous illustrators of the day, his first commission was of a bucking bronco painted for the February 21, 1903, cover of The Saturday Evening Post. N.C. went on to illustrate editions of Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Robin Hood, among others. “I would spend hours in my grandfather’s studio, and it was as if he had just walked out,” Jamie says. “There was his palette, all the paint spatter, all of the costumes. At that point a lot of his illustrations were still there because the publisher would publish them and send them back to him. And apparently if you went to N.C. Wyeth’s studio and you admired something he’d give it to you; they were useless to him. Now, of course, they sell for $5 million a piece.”
After afternoons spent with his aunt, Jamie would walk down the hill to his house, also his father’s studio, and enter a much bleaker world. “There’d be my father painting some dead crow or something,” Jamie says. “That was boring as hell after spending the day with Treasure Island and Robin Hood. Really, I think my grandfather influenced my work more than my father. If you look at Andrew Wyeth’s work it’s all pretty dark. Each of us, I think, are quite different. But I think N.C. Wyeth informs my work more than Andrew Wyeth’s does.”
Jamie despised the structure and tedium of formal training, but enjoyed time spent with Carolyn. “My aunt was cool,” he says. “She was a character.” Carolyn Wyeth, like her older sister Henriette, studied art with her father. But unlike her father’s and brother’s work, Carolyn rarely painted figures, focusing exclusively on landscapes and still life. Her works seem to channel her brooding and introspective personality. “She hated her father,” Jamie says. “My own father said that she would always drive him crazy. But then when her father died, she started wearing his clothes around, that’s how wild she was. The Wyeths are a strange sort, I’ll tell you.”
Rising Son // Jamie Wyeth, photographed at the GCMA
Jamie’s first New York show opened when he was nineteen and its success gave him the confidence needed to pursue art as a full-time vocation. “I guess that’s when I finally decided this is what I want to do and this is what I will do,” he says. “The work sold and that encouraged me.” Since then Jamie has painted almost every day, although admitting not all of it is inspired. “Painting is not easy for me,” he says. “I really slave over it. I burn things up in the oven trying to dry them and speed up the paint. But I think you have to drive yourself and have a reason. It doesn’t always click but the opiate to me is that when I’m doing a portrait let’s say of somebody and all of the sudden I go to the studio and it becomes alive. That’s the thing that hooks me. When you create a world onto that canvas and it starts becoming alive and breathing and looking at you. It’s rare, but that’s what hooks you.”
As Jamie continues to wind through the museum, he expresses his amazement with the number of pieces in the exhibition. “This rivals the Brandywine Museum,” he says referring to the museum of American art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, which houses countless Wyeth family works. “Some of these I’ve never seen before.” Jamie stops in front of a set of watercolors and stares for a long moment before speaking. “These are very early watercolors of my father, and he said he would do these five at a time and do the same subject again and again,” Jamie explains. “He said he used so much blue at that period that he never wanted to use blue again for the rest of his life.”
When Jamie stops in front of his piece The Albino Tortoise, a visitor begins to describe what he sees in the painting. Jamie listens intently and nods without saying a word. “I never try to impose myself,” he says later. “If someone likes a painting of mine and goes on about what it’s about I say ‘perfect yes.’ My statement is the painting and if they view it in some other light and whatnot, fine.”
When questioned about his role in a cultural dynasty, Jamie shakes his head as if the whole thing is inconsequential. “I find painting difficult enough,” he says. “So I’ve always left all of those considerations outside my studio door. I love my grandfather’s and father’s work, so if I’m going to be compared to something I’d rather be compared to that. But as long as I’m able to keep painting, it doesn’t matter what route it goes.”
And continuing to paint is what Jamie Wyeth will do, and he hopes his work will inspire young artists to pursue their passion. “I can’t imagine a more interesting life to go into than painting,” Jamie says. “You can touch so many worlds if you so choose. You see in my paintings my subjects are all over the place. For young people, I think it is a fascinating profession. There are over 3,500 galleries in New York alone. There is a great need for young painters.”
But one can’t help wonder if Jamie, who will turn 71 this summer, has any regrets about the decision to dedicate his life to his art at such a young age. He freely admits he considers himself a boring person and has no hobbies—Jamie’s work is his life. “Some people come up and say to me ‘You missed so much in your life,’” he says. “And I wonder if maybe some morning I’ll jump out of bed and think why didn’t I play football? But that hasn’t happened yet.”
Wyeth Dynasty is on view at the GCMA, through September 10. The museum is open Wed–Sat, 10am–6pm, and Sun, 1–5pm. 420 College St, Greenville; gcma.org