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Sunday, December 8, 2013


One cannot grow up in Chester County or in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania without seeing and "feeling" Andrew Wyeth in the fields, streams and barns. Even the hawks in the sky point to Wyeth paintings and watercolors.

The association is so powerful that when people ask me where I grew up I say, "Chester County, Pennsylvania -- Andrew Wyeth country," and they immediately understand.

Growing up in Andrew Wyeth country meant that when you took a hike in the fields or woods you could easily wonder "What if we run into Andrew Wyeth?" Mr. Wyeth, after all, was known to take solitary walks in the country, and stories of people meeting the artist there were not uncommon.

Though I never met Andrew during my forays into the woods, in the mid 1970s, when I was an avid hitchhiker, Andrew Wyeth's son, Jamie, an iconic artist in his right, offered me a lift to my parents' home in Frazer, Pennsylvania. Although Jamie Wyeth and I said little during the short ride up Lancaster Pike, I remember the cans of paint, paint brushes and the blank canvasses in the back seat of his car.

In Wyeth's paintings I see some of the people of my childhood. The artist not only captured the Chester County landscape, he hit on the peculiar quirkiness of its inhabitants. I'm reminded especially of the artist's 1967 tempera painting, "Anna Christina," a portrait of a country woman who could easily have been a customer on my boyhood paper route.

"The Kuerners," a 1971 drybrush on paper portrait of an old German-descent farming couple could have been the farmer who owned the big red barn at the end of our street. This hard working Mennonite family had two sons. They owned the cows and horses that roamed the field behind our house. The barn itself was not only a cathedral of stacked haylofts for superman impersonations but the hiding place for the sons' stash of pornography.

Wyeth's portrait of the red haired "Sea Dog," could have been any of the prickly characters one met along the Lincoln Highway. These characters usually walked with a limp, had an opinion about everything, and chewed tobacco. While many of them looked like they could bite the head off a snake, when you talked to them they had the sweetness of a Grampa Walton.

Death for some artists and writers can bring a revaluation of their work, a "reanalysis" that may revise the not always accurate critical summing up that occurred during their lifetime. Death will certainly enhance Wyeth's reputation. It's almost certain that the names of those art critics who trivialized Wyeth for promoting himself rather his artistry will not be remembered.

Born July 12, 1917, Andrew Wyeth was the youngest of 5 children. Because of an early childhood illness, he received his education at home from his father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who died in 1945. Wyeth's had his first New York gallery show in 1936. By all accounts the show was a success. Mr. Wyeth's oeuvre includes many paintings of his wife (of 68 years), Betsy.

"Maga's Daughters," is Mr. Wyeth's portrait of his young wife Betsy after a possible marital spat. In a Philadelphia Museum of Art catalog celebrating a 2006 retrospective of Wyeth's work, writer Christopher Crosman explains that, "She [Betsy] was reportedly furious with her husband for agreeing to serve on various government art committees that took him away from painting.... yet there is the beginning of a smile and her eyes flash as she looks toward an unseen light source..." Betsy was a powerful force in her husband's life. She titled many if not all of Mr. Wyeth's works. The ever loyal Betsy also remained at the artist's side during a particularly intense midlife crisis.

While no two marriages are the same, I admire marriages where couples remain loyal to one another through thick and thin.

Wyeth's midlife crisis caused him to produce a secret series of drawings and paintings, many of them nudes, of his friend Helga Testof. Critics say that the Helga nudes may have been Wyeth's way of (temporarily) expressing his independence from his wife.

During his lifetime Mr. Wyeth was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also a recipient (like Thomas Eakins) of the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Andrew Wyeth may be dead but his signature will always be on the Pennsylvania landscape.