In "Hay Ledge," a painting of a small boat stored in a barn, Andrew Wyeth used strong geometries and contrasting light and dark to create an image both real and mysterious.
New exhibit at Greenville art museum reveals larger sense of Andrew Wyeth's art
(Photo: In "Hay Ledge," a painting of a small boat stored in a barn, Andrew Wyeth used strong geometries and contrasting light and dark to create an image both real and mysterious. Hay Ledge, 1957 tempera copyright Greenville County Museum of Art)
When Andrew Wyeth died at ninety-one in January, attention focused on his best-known painting, Christina's World.
A woman in a pink dress, her blond hair askew, drags herself across a field toward a distant, weather-beaten house. The picture brims with emotion -- and mystery. Who is the woman? What happened to her? And, since she's seen only from behind, what does she look like?
Some answers can be found in Greenville, S.C., a short hop down I-85 from Charlotte. Long known for its interest in Wyeth, the Greenville County Museum of Art has just reinstalled its collection of more than thirty paintings by the famed artist.
On the walls you'll find a larger sense of Wyeth's art and a closer look at Christina Olson, crippled by a degenerative disease but determined to live life on her terms even if that meant not using a wheelchair.
Apron, made in 1965, some twenty years after Wyeth painted Christina's World, is a study for a portrait, meaning it's incomplete. Yet the power of the picture will nail you to the floor.
Here, at last, is the face of Christina, a neighbor of Wyeth's in Cushing, Maine, one of two locales he mined for subjects. Using pencil, Wyeth sketched her capacious body, thin arms, apron, and the chair she sat in.
But he took great pains with the face, capturing rich details in watercolor: the heavily lidded eyes, big nose, thick lips, and wild hair now threaded with gray. Moreover, here is the soul of someone the artist knew well, a woman near death who had endured much. In her knowing eyes you see both her strength and fragility.
The other works include landscapes around Wyeth's home in Chadds Ford in the Brandywine River Valley of Pennsylvania. There are interiors and still lifes that testify to his love of domesticity and everyday objects such as a pot brimming with berries.
There's also an amusing picture of Helga, the model for a notorious series of nudes, some of which came to the Mint Museum a few years back. In Barefoot, Wyeth captures Helga, fully clothed in her trademark loden coat, as she scampers from a room.
All of these works, except for one, are watercolors, and that is key to appreciating them.
Wyeth is best known for painting in egg tempera, a demanding technique that enabled him to get the particularity he wanted. But with watercolor he could be freer. He had immense control, used dry brush to fill in details such as those of Christina's face. But he also washed color loosely with a broad brush, let drops spray, left smudges, and creatively used the white of the paper to create his compositions.
"We're so much closer to him through the watercolors, to the moment of inspiration," says Martha Severens, curator at the Greenville museum.
Firmly in the realist tradition, Wyeth is not often thought of as an abstract painter. But with the freedom he found in watercolors, he could be. Shoreline (1938) and Kelp (1940), hung side by side, depict the shore at water's edge but are mostly studies in vivid color and motion.
These works span seventy years of an artist looking, feeling, and working to capture a world he loved. When you see them, you may find Wyeth to be more complex than you expected.
The show is up through October. And Greenville less than two hours away.
For the April issue of Charlotte, Richard Maschal reviewed Uptown's newest architecture. He spent the last ten of his forty years at The Charlotte Observer covering art and architecture. He retired in October.