Exhibit Focuses On Working Methods Of Legendary Realist Painter
By SUSAN DUNNE
March 25, 2012
Andrew Wyeth is one of the most beloved, and most derided, American artists of the 20th century. His 1948 "Christina's World" is iconic, and he is praised for his skill at egg tempera coloration, the meticulous construction of his images and his symbolism. Detractors call him on his decades of painting the same subjects and locations over and over again.
Some might think there was nothing left to be learned about Wyeth.
Erin Monroe, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, disagrees. Her new exhibit, "Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond," aims to focus not just on the finished works of Wyeth (1917-2009), but also on his creative process and working methods.
" 'Looking Beyond,' the name of the exhibit, has a literal meaning, regarding his perspective, his use of symbolism of windows and doors as passages in both the physical and emotional realm, but it also has another meaning, regarding his viewpoints, which were distinct and unusual," Monroe says. "There was a lot of preparation and thought that went into them. You can see how much time he spent on every aspect of composition, using watercolor and pencil, before using the egg tempera."
"Looking Beyond" opened Saturday, March 24 and will run through Sunday, July 22.
The exhibit is centered around three egg tempera Wyeths, all in the Atheneum's permanent collection: "Chambered Nautilus" (1956), depicting a woman in bed, facing the windows of her room, with a nautilus shell at the foot of her bed; "Northern Point" (1950), a view from a rooftop including a lightning rod; and "April Wind" (1952), depicting a friend of Wyeth's sitting on a fallen tree in an open field in Pennsylvania. (Wyeth painted in Chadds Ford, Pa., where he lived, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine.) Those paintings are surrounded by several preliminary studies each, seven of which never have been exhibited publicly.
The exhibit opens with "Northern Point" and its studies. Monroe points out that in his preliminary drawings, Wyeth climbed onto the roof of the 200-year-old house.
"You see that this watercolor study had more color and life than the finished painting," says Monroe, who pointed out that the Atheneum show is the first time the finished "Northern Point" and the watercolor study have been exhibited side-by-side. "When he got to the egg tempera, he elongated the perspective and exaggerated the scene." The egg tempera "Northern Point" depicts a foggy Maine morning, with muted colors: a brown roof, a white ocean, buff-colored sand, the shiny lightning rod the brightest spot of interest.
The exhibit's second room is dominated by studies for "April Wind" and its completed piece. In some studies, the fallen tree has a prominent branch pointing upward, which is gone in the egg tempera. "But look at how he concentrates, in every study and in the final, on his pinky ring, how the light bounces off this reflective surface," Monroe says.
"Chambered Nautilus" shows Wyeth's mother-in-law, who was sickly, gazing out her bedroom windows. The studies not only show how Wyeth often removed the person at the center of the photo to study the composition, but also that he initially couldn't decide what kind of shell — a conch or a nautilus — to depict in the work.
"It's interesting how that change came about. It is believed that someone just brought the nautilus shell and he preferred it, but I like to think that it was symbolic," Monroe says. "He often designated objects as stand-ins for people, and a nautilus has all these chambers. His mother-in-law was confined to a chamber and couldn't leave."
Another egg tempera work in the exhibit is "Christina Olson," from 1947, depicting one of his favorite models, his neighbor in Maine. Several studies show elements of the scene that Wyeth eliminated from the final work: a necklace, a protruding wing of the house.
One recurring feature of Wyeth's works, Monroe says, is that the models face away from the artist. "It gives them a sense of mystery, that you don't know the full story of this person," she says.
Also in the show is "Front Door," a 1944 painting. "Compositionally ['Front Door'] is not as balanced as his later works," Monroe says. "You get a slight suggestion of looking through a window, but the windows are not the focal point as they are in later works."
One anomaly in the exhibit is "West Window," a 1947 watercolor on loan from the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London. "It's unusual in that it's a finished watercolor, not a preliminary study for another painting," Monroe says. "But it fits in with his work in that it draws on the window theme." Also featured are some preliminary studies for "Groundhog Day," a painting the Atheneum was not able to borrow for the exhibit because of its fragile condition.
Monroe says that rather than disdaining Wyeth's preference for the same subjects over and over, she is inspired by that.
"He would go out and about in a boat, or walking, and be inspired by what he saw. He painted his neighbors over and over, but they feel new every time," she says. "He sees people and places mature and start to decay, and always is inspired by them. ... In the '40s, he's painting Christine, and 20 years later, he's still painting Christina."
"ANDREW WYETH: LOOKING BEYOND" is at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until Sunday, July 22. On Tuesday, May 15, at 6 p.m., Joyce Hill Stoner, a consultant conservator to the Wyeth family of artists, will give a lecture, "Andrew Wyeth's Paintings: The Messages of the Medium. The museum is open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10, $8 seniors , $5 students, children younger than 12 and members free. Details: http://www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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