From 2009 until 2011, I worked as a custom art framer in Portland, Maine. I never imagined that during this time in New England I would frame so many photos of the Caribbean. During long winters, pictures of the tropics were often dropped off at my workshop, and the idealized images of palm-lined beaches made me homesick for the Virgin Islands, even if their airbrushed vision of the Antilles was far from my own.
Images are powerful. Even something as superficial as tourist art can be relentless when it presents itself as truth. The landscapes found on posters and in glossy photographs felt bludgeoning to me during those years; sometimes they even threatened to become more real than my memories. Everyone has a home. And whether we like it or not, the images of our homes that confront us shape our identity.
For Mainers, it must be the paintings of Andrew Wyeth that seem inescapable. During my time working in Portland, I framed hundreds of his prints. Wyeth, the second generation of a dynasty of American artists, spent his summers in Maine, and his work has become strongly attached to the state. His most famous painting, “Christina’s World”, is a symbol of New England to many people around the globe. Despite being made into an icon, the painting can still seem eerie. Is the subject a young girl daydreaming in the fields of her family farm? No, the woman is Christina Olson, crippled by polio, the isolated heir of a family of puritanical North Atlantic sailors, dragging herself back home after visiting her family cemetery plot. I stood in that same cemetery plot in Cushing, Maine in 2009. There was a fresh burial, a mound of dirt marked by a single yellow daffodil. I knew, although the headstone had not yet been placed, that the grave was Andrew Wyeth’s.
- “Christina’s World”, 1948. (Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art)
In the context of contemporary art, Andrew Wyeth can seem like the defender of an unfashionable realism. A painter of solemn rural scenes, Wyeth’s apparent nationalist streak has made his work sit uncomfortably with those critics who are curious about his ideological judgements. When art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked in 1977 to name the most underrated and overrated artists of the 20th-century, he mentioned only Andrew Wyeth.
What Rosenblum meant by this is that Wyeth is popularly overrated — by the kind of people who trained art historians probably believe don’t “understand” art — and critically underrated, maybe for the same reason. Wyeth’s designation in the United States, “The People’s Painter”, was always an insult in avant-garde circles, meant to categorize Wyeth as a reactionary painter and a defender of mainstream Anglo-American values.
But what exactly are the politics of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings? His aristocratic bearing, his attachment to realism, and his disdain for most of the bohemian art of his era say enough about his cultural conservatism. But I doubt that Wyeth is described accurately as a defender of mainstream Anglo-American values. As far as I can see his values are the values of an outsider.
Wyeth’s vision of a desolate and decrepit America is not the vision of a man at ease. His biographers often emphasize the frail health and isolation of his childhood. Andrew was frequently ill and home-schooled, not allowed much contact with people outside the family compound. His father, the famous (and famously intense) illustrator N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher. The Wyeths were an old New England family (the first Wyeth to arrive in the United States was Nicholas Wyeth, who settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1645), but more recent immigrants had also influenced Andrew’s branch of the Wyeth clan. His father, in his twenties, wrote about this lineage:
“My grandmother was born in the mountains of Switzerland. When twenty-three years of age she tore herself away from all her people and the quiet romantic little dairy home to follow my grandfather to America. Dropped into the heart of Cambridge, Mass., among strange people, unable even to speak a word of their tongue, she lived for three years. Then it was, in 1867, that my grandfather purchased a lonesome bit of land in the outskirts of Needham and on the Charles River, and here my dear old grandmother almost pined her heart away for her home and people in the Swiss mountains…. [this nostalgia] has always impressed me profoundly, and I in turn have inherited that strange love for things remote, things delicately perfumed with that sadness that is so exquisitely beautiful.”
N.C.’s nostalgia isn’t surprising when taken alongside his work; melancholy currents run deep through his famous “blood and thunder” illustrations.
What’s more interesting than his sentimentality is that he finds the source of his own pathos in the inherited dispossession of a “self-exiled” ancestor. Maybe it is partly this dispossession, passed down another generation, that gives his son Andrew, whose best-known portraits are of loners and exiles, his outsider’s edge.
Andrew’s America is an austere, wintry world populated with people whose surnames are not exactly associated with the Anglo-Yankeedom that has sometimes championed his work. The Olsons, Kuerners, and Testorfs who wander Wyeth’s bleak countryside are strangers. “I pick out models who are misfits. And I’m a misfit,” he said.
Aside from the warmth and identification with which he portrayed a few of his “misfit” models, Wyeth is best known for coldness and alienation. In 1945, Andrew’s father, N.C., was killed when his car stalled at a railroad crossing, an event that was the catalyst for Andrew’s maturation as an artist and his subsequent obsession with death and loss. Every landscape that Wyeth painted after that year was, by his own admission, a portrait of his father – severe, imposing, and possessing the qualities of an eroding memory.
It’s bizarre that Andrew Wyeth, an artist of obvious eccentricity and some might say opacity, became so beloved in the United States as a national painter. To this day, his vision of New England, so clearly his own harrowing psychological landscape, is often read as conventional American realism by those who hang his prints above their fireplaces. Frank Fowler, a dealer of Andrew Wyeth’s work, is on to something when he argues that Wyeth is, despite his ties to the realist tradition, better thought of as an abstractionist since:
“…his trees, birds, and kitchen stoves, which look precisely like trees, birds, and kitchen stoves are likely to be metaphors for loneliness, violence or decay.”
Is there anything more death-haunted and despairing in 20th-century American art than the solitary cresting wave in “Adrift”? Or the long shadows in “Young Bull”?
If Wyeth’s paintings are deceptively quiet, it is only to make the violence they conceal more unnerving. Karl Keurner, one of the his frequent models, was a former German soldier during World War I, and a neighbor of the Wyeths in Pennsylvania. Andrew spent years painting the Keurner farm, which he once noted in an interview did not interest him in any picturesque way. Instead, he was impressed by the place abstractly and emotionally, noting its utilitarian, nearly militaristic nature. He once said of Karl Keurner that “[his eyes] have looked down a machine-gun barrel, squinted great distances… those are my father’s lips – cruel.” Rarely does Keurner appear in Wyeth’s world without also the suggestion of violence, as in the painting entitled “Karl” with its meat hooks and cracking ceiling.
Even the serenity of “Groundhog Day”, otherwise be a tranquil rendering of Karl’s kitchen, is interrupted by the menace of jagged saw cuts in the logs outside Keurner’s window.
As for Maine, Wyeth was not a native of that state, but in many ways it has adopted him, and his choice of a final resting place suggests that he found this fitting. His paintings have become a part of Maine’s mythology.
An insular state that depends heavily on tourism for its revenue, Maine is another place where images threaten to become more real than reality. I sometimes wonder if it’s right that the state’s most familiar aesthetic was born in the tortured, anti-modern imagination of Andrew Wyeth. I wonder, at least, how native Mainers experience this. What is their truth?
Wyeth described Maine as “spidery, light in color, windy perhaps, sometimes foggy, giving the impression sometimes of crackling skeletons rattling in the attic.” It’s a romantic description, and with the same Gothic sentimentality found in his father’s illustrations. But maybe every place deserves its romance as long as it doesn’t thrash the inner-landscapes of those who live there. I admit that, years from now, when I think of my time in Maine, I will partly think of Andrew Wyeth and his battered vision of New England: a place forceful enough to be bruising, yet brittle enough to appear fragile.