While best known for a single painting, Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth was far from a one trick pony and his vast catalog of images is a testament to the man as well as his talent. A year after his death, he remains one of the most famous U.S. artists of the 20th century.
Born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1917, Andrew was the youngest of five children of artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth and Carolyn Bockius Wyeth. Due to frail health, Andrew was home-schooled and encouraged by his father to pursue his artistic side. N.C. inspired his son’s appreciation for rural landscapes and sense of romance which would prove to be key in his later work.
Wyeth began drawing as a child and with his father’s help; he conquered the art of figure study and watercolor painting. He studied art history in his spare time and was particularly interested in masters from the Renaissance period of the 14th to the 17th centuries as well as American artists like Winslow Homer. Like N.C., he also admired the poetry of Robert Frost and Henry Thoreau. Music and film also affected his approach to art.
His first show in 1937 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City proved to be a stunning success as the entire collection of watercolors sold out. Unlike his father’s art, now twenty-year-old Andrew‘s work – sparer, dryer and more limited in color range. Three years later in 1940, Wyeth married Betsy James who bore two children; Nicholas and James whom Wyeth painted portraits of.
October 1945 brought tragedy to the Wyeth family as both N.C. and Andrews three year old nephew were both killed after their car stalled on train tracks near their home. Wyeth would be deeply affected by this event, both personally as well as professionally. Almost immediately after the catastrophic accident, Wyeth began to show a maturity in his work as he began to utilize abstinent color for his realistic and emotionally permeated paintings. Three years later. In 1948, Wyeth painted his most famous work. Christina’s World depicted his neighbor, Christina Olson lying in a dry field facing the Olson farm house. The young woman, who was unable to walk due to an unknown illness, inspired Wyeth. The Olson’s, along with his other neighbor’s, the Kuerner’s, proved to be the artist’s most important points of reference for the next 30 years.
Wyeth upheld his realism approach to art for over 50 years and leaned toward several famous landscapes and models for inspiration. His Helga series began in 1970 and lasted until 1985. Helga Testorf was a friend of the Wyeth’s who had never modeled before, but became comfortable posing for the artist for hours at a time. More often than not, she is illustrated as subdued and unsmiling. Yet, with Wyeth’s ongoing study of his subject, he was able to communicate the textures of mood and character.
Wyeth representative style was not in step with abstract or pop art movements of the mid-twentieth century. Despite some critical pummeling, he stuck to his and never wavered from his vision, no matter how out of vogue he might have been. For those who admire Wyeth’s work, he captured the American spirit and believes there are forceful emotional waves and symbolic content within his paintings. Whether you are an enthusiast or an oppositionist, there is no denying that Andrew Wyeth made an incredible contribution to American art.