On the Death of Andrew Wyeth
by Ken Greenleaf
In losing Andrew Wyeth recently at the age of 91, Maine lost one of its most popular and loved artists. He had become a living landmark, the chronicler of a way of seeing life and land in Maine and Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania.
The son of a well-known artist and father of another, Andrew Wyeth had been coming to Cushing, Maine, since his boyhood. His best-known work, Christina’s World, was a depiction of a Cushing house and woman he knew well. It has become an American icon.
Wyeth’s reputation among critics was mixed, to say the least. He didn’t help matters by his sometimes contradictory statements about his work. He said, for instance, that Christina’s World would be a better painting without the figure of Christina, which is probably true. He also said, “I honestly consider myself to be an abstractionist.”
His muted palette gave his paintings an immediately recognizable emotional tone that made them feel realistically rendered. The “abstraction” comment meant that he could arrange patterns of light and shadow that feel real because they are visually coherent, but aren’t necessarily reflections of how things look. The viewer’s mind supplies details that are not actually there.
The historian Paul Johnson declared Wyeth to be America’s finest narrative painter, but in his best work Wyeth’s narratives are implied, rather than stated. Above all, he could project a sense of portent, as if some meaningful action had taken place in the scene before he came to paint it and had left its invisible traces. He could capture that undercurrent of melancholy isolation that is familiar to anyone who has spent a lot time in Maine.
For those of us who grew up in Maine with an interest in art, Andrew Wyeth was a continuous, lifelong presence, sometimes admired and at other times suspect, but always there. It doesn’t seem possible that he is gone.