Last week, my friend Andrew Wyeth died.
Five years ago I had spent a few hours with Andy and his wife Betsy. I had written to Andy and we arranged a time in the winter, while I was on a book tour, to meet in Chadds Ford. I brought with me an original New Yorker cartoon for the Wyeths and they laughed out loud when they read the caption (father and son rabbits at a train station, son going off to college. Father hands son a wrapped gift and says to the son “Your mother wanted you to have this for good luck – it’s her foot.”)
The three of us sat in front of a large stone fireplace in a room filled with a cool natural light, much like one of Andy’s paintings. I showed them a batch of cartoons and we talked about all sorts of things, including Betsy’s knitting. She made me a pair of wrist warmers, which I still wear when it’s very cold. They posed for a few pictures (some very silly ones too). After an hour or so Betsy had to leave to run a few errands. I sat with Andy for a while – he spoke of his affection for Edward Hopper. He told me a wonderful story about his first and last cover assignment for The Saturday Evening Post. Betsy did not want Andy to be an illustrator like N.C. Andy told me what a wonderful woman Betsy was for him and how she looked out for him so that he could be free to paint. “Extraordinary” he called his wife.
Andy never worked from photographs. His realism came from direct observations, often outside in the bitter cold. He had a sort of studio in an SUV that would take him deep into the countryside where a driver would, at Andy’s request, pull over, unpack and set up his paints and easel. If you look closely at the surface of his watercolor paper, specifically the depictions of Helga in winter, you can see how the weather beat the hell out of the paper. When I was with him that day, Helga was near by in his studio getting his paints in order. I was very surprised to know this. He asked if I’d like to meet Helga, but thought it might be better to wait until another time. “She can be a little tough when you first meet her” he’d said. We talked for a little while longer about some of the artists we liked and some we didn’t like. He asked if I wanted to see a drawing he was working on and of course I said yes. It was a beautiful graphite study of Betsy’s hands knitting with a wonderful light falling across her fingers. I watched Andy’s face while he described his intentions for a larger tempera -- his excitement was contagious.
Just before I left, Andy showed me a marble bust of John Paul Jones. It was in another room in the house in front of a window that looked out onto the Brandywine River. “Look at that. Isn’t that something?” he said with great pride. He adored that sculpture.
Andrew Wyeth was an artist in the purest sense on the word. He was true to whatever it was that first made him want to make pictures – he never wavered. For 91 years he went back and forth from Chadds Ford to Maine and all he did for nearly a century was to paint some of the most emotionally charged images I have ever witnessed. He kept to himself. His work is an intimate window into a sublime vision of his own humanity. His realism was masterful and captured not only the likeness of his subjects, but often the calm pain just beneath the surface. Even an egg tempera painting of a dilapidated jacket hanging on a wooden door had an undeniable narrative that is somehow alloyed to each and every one of us.
Despite what so many artistically naïve critics have written about Wyeth’s body of work, it did indeed evolve. His early watercolors reminiscent of Homer, to the meticulous egg tempera paintings (Christina’s World) and finally the Zen like watercolors painted with a force and energy that stands alone as a pinnacle of artistic freedom.
It’s fitting that Andy passed in his sleep on a bitterly cold night in Chadds Ford. On the day of my visit he told me he admired winter, respected it. He seemed to have an understanding of the cold, the way it killed year after year.
Andrew Wyeth 1917 - 2009