On one side: the Ashcan School, social realists, abstract expressionists, surrealists, action painters, color field artists, Op Artists, minimalists and postmodernists.
On the other side: the Wyeths.
Has any family in history produced three generations of such highly regarded artists? Have any become such a part of the national consciousness while stubbornly ignoring trends and ideologies?
Parents still pass N.C. Wyeth’s illustrated versions of “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” to children. “Christina’s World,” one of the great works by son Andrew Wyeth, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. (Incredibly, he painted it in 1948, the same year Jackson Pollock’s drip painting “No. 5” set heads spinning.) Grandson Jamie Wyeth became famous at 20 for his posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy.
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Each of them gets a room at the Mint Museum on Randolph Road in the exhibit “The Wyeths: Three Generations, Works from the Bank of America Collection.” (Andrew shares his with his gifted sister, Henriette, and her husband, Peter Hurd.)
If they have anything in common, says Jonathan Stuhlman, it’s that “there’s a story in each one, not just in N.C.’s illustrations (for books). There’s a narrative, implied if not direct. There’s drama, and you can assign a story to it as you look at it.”
The Mint’s senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art, Stuhlman grew up in Wyeth country, visiting Maine during the summers; he often drove past locations all three depict in this show. “Andrew would be in someone’s house or walking through a landscape and notice something, and he’d transform it,” says Stulhman. “He said, ‘I used to take people to the places I painted, and they were always disappointed.’ He created compositions to make an emotional impact.”
This show, which runs through Aug. 13, will do that, whether you smile at Jamie’s anthropomorphic sea gulls – he once used them to portray the Seven Deadly Sins – or wince at knights ready to spill blood in N.C.’s “Sir Nigel Sustains England’s Honor.” (If these works put you in a buying mood, visit Jerald Melberg Gallery to see “The Wyeth Family,” which will run through May 6.)
When you do drop into the Mint, “The Tempest” (shown above) will arrest your view as you step into Jamie Wyeth’s section. Here are eight more things not to miss in the show:
“The Blue Cup”
At 16, Henriette Wyeth – Andrew’s older sister – produced this subtle, shadowed study of a cream-colored jug, blue coffee cup and pink saucer against a khaki cloth. Her extraordinary craftsmanship makes a strong argument that Wyeth DNA contained some special artistic genes. (There are 16 painters over four generations of the extended Wyeth-Hurd family!) (1923; Bank of America Collection; © Henriette Wyeth; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)
Untitled landscape, 1923
Andrew’s penchant for landscapes that veer subtly from reality may have been learned from his dad, who wasn’t always a figurative painter. This piece shows N.C.’s love for Impressionism, the movement that began a decade before he was born in 1882. The indistinct trees, misty white cows and brown blotch of bull show what he could do when he became less literal. (1923; Bank of America Collection; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)
Anybody who thinks Andrew was “realistic” should see this Magritte-like juxtaposition of items that don’t fit together. A tangle of caribou antlers hangs on a chain from the ceiling of – a barn, maybe? – suspended over a spruce tree that appears to be growing indoors, out of the sunlight. Snow surrounds the tree smoothly, even in the space under the overhang. Say what? (1983; Bank of America Collection; © Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)
At 82, Andrew painted his only granddaughter with the same meticulous detail and absence of flattery as all his other sitters. She wears the faraway look of so many of his models and seems to wait patiently for the artist to finish. Victoria dresses in black, with a silver necklace and hair pulled back tightly, and sits in a room that seems chilly despite bright light. Does she smile? (1999; Bank of America Collection. © Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)
Quintessential wintry Andrew Wyeth: A dozen shades of brown and black depict bare trees and huddled buildings, not warmed a bit by the fire implied by smoke rising from a chimney. A paralyzing blanket of snow sits over all. “He frequently talked about how abstract his work was,” says Stuhlman. “He thought in lights and darks and forms.” (1984; Bank of America Collection; © Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)
Jamie’s title reminds us this cow is not a pet but farm stock, yet she’s depicted as a creature with intelligence and feelings. Her shaggy coat, about to be drenched again by a New England storm, gives her a weighty presence. Jamie painted animals more often than other Wyeths but didn’t sentimentalize them (except, perhaps, for his dog, who’s not in this show). (1980; Bank of America Collection; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)
“Rip Van Winkle”
N.C. Wyeth’s paintings invite us on adventures, whether to witness wrestlers in a lamplit tavern or accompany hunters or fishermen across Maine. This cover illustration for Washington Irving’s tale blends reality – the torn-coated rural New Yorker and his wolvish dog – with fantasy embodied by old Rip, a red-nosed rake with an absurdly plumed hat, sly expression and long white beard. Are we meant to be his companion, toting a supply of rum into the spooky woods? (Cover illustration, 1921; Bank of America Collection; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)
“Pumpkinhead Visits the Lighthouse”
Jamie’s pieces show more of a sense of humor than the others’. This self-portrait hangs next to “Warm Halloween,” a sprawl of squashed and rotting pumpkins in a field. The main figure gestures away from the towering landmark, like a blind man wandering in the wrong direction. He has done other paintings of himself as a pumpkinhead, or you might think he intended to parody ... an art critic. (2000; Bank of America Collection; courtesy of the Mint Museum.)