Andrew Wyeth, one of the most famous figures in American art, died early Friday in his sleep at his home in the small town of Chadds Ford, Pa. Wyeth’s often bleak, but extremely emotive landscapes and portraits of rural life made him one of the most recognized and popular artists in the country. He was 91.
Art was central in Wyeth’s life growing up. His father, N.C. Wyeth, was a famed illustrator, and two of his sisters also became accomplished painters. “It was the most imaginative, rich childhood you could ever want,” Wyeth said. “That’s why I have so much inside of me that I want to paint.”
Wyeth drew heavily upon the people and places around the two areas he called home: Chadds Ford in the Brandywine River Valley and the coast of central Maine. His most famous painting, “Christina’s World,” was inspired by the sight of his neighbor, Christina Olsen, who was crippled by polio as a child, crawling across a field on a summer day in Maine. It now stands as one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
In often dark colors and always with vivid detail, Wyeth captured lonely fields, vacant landscapes, weathered houses and the equally worn faces and tools of the people that carved life out their rural surroundings. “He had a deep understanding of the human condition and how we relate to the world we live in to the remnants of the past and the very real opportunities and threats of the present,” said James Duff, executive director of the Brandywine River Museum, which is renowned for its collection of three generations of work by the Wyeths (Andrew’s son, James, is also a well-known painter).
Extremely popular with the general public, Wyeth drew scornful reviews from a number of art world insiders and critics who felt he was out of step with the modernist movement propelled by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
Duff argued that despite those criticisms, Wyeth remained a contemporary painter. “If you look carefully at his work the shapes came first. The shapes attracted his eye and the subject matter was filled in later,” Duff added.
Said Wyeth: “I think the great weakness in most of my work is subject matter. There’s too much of it.”
In 1986, Wyeth made headlines across the country when more than 200 sketches and 45 paintings of his neighbor, Helga Testorf, became public. Wyeth had met with Helga since the early 1970s for hundreds of modeling sessions. A number of the drawings and paintings were of Helga in the nude, which fueled speculation there might have been more to their relationship. Wyeth’s wife Betsy was even unaware of the works before they were released. Later, she has said they upset her and their marriage. The intense interest in the Helga paintings and the story behind it pushed the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to organize a show of the pictures in 1987.
Throughout his career, Wyeth’s work earned him wall space in most of the major museums around the world and scores of honors. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and in 1970 he became the first living artist to have a solo show at the White House. Recently, he received the National Medal of Art in 2007.
Wyeth continued to work in his later years. “I can tell you he liked fast cars, motorcycles and planes,” said Duff. “His last work he did in Chadds Ford was a motorcycle rider at a stop light.” That painting is now on view at the Brandywine River Museum.
“His work changed a lot in his lifetime,” said Kathleen Foster, who was curator of a 2006 show of Wyeth’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “He developed and he was very surreal in his early career and became surreal again at end of his life. More dream like. More fantastic.”