Andrew Wyeth, perhaps the most iconic American artist of the 20th Century, passed away in his sleep on the morning of Friday, January 16, surrounded by his family at Chadds Ford, in southeastern Pennsylvania, where he was born 91 years ago. I was saddened to learn of his death followed by the sudden realization that we will have to be satisfied with the many fine watercolor, drybrush, and egg tempera paintings executed over a long and distinguished career spanning seven decades. There will be no more.
Whether it is the paintings of his native Chadds Ford, often stark depictions of farms and fields painted during the autumn and winter, when he was in residence, or those capturing the quiet solitude of the Maine coast during the summer and early autumn, his art has always struck a deep chord in me that will continue to resonate for years to come. Wyeth will always be with us through his art and his passion for the land, the sea, and the common people tied to them. I am reminded of what Johann Winkelmann once wrote about classic Greek art . . . the important precept of "edle Einfalt und stille Grosse" (noble simplicity and quiet grandeur). There is really something very beautiful and striking about the simplicity evoked in Wyeth's paintings. "I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be."
Upon learning of Andrew Wyeth’s death I immediately thought of his painting "Snow Hill" which he painted in the late 1980s, in part to commemorate his eightieth birthday. Here we find representations of a number of Wyeth’s favorite models whom he painted in Chadds Ford: Karl and Anna Kuerner to whose nearby farm Wyeth often retreated to paint; neighbors William Loper and Allan Lynch; and Helga Testorf, the subject of a secret series of paintings first revealed to his family and the public at large some twenty years ago. This assemblage has gathered at the top of the Kuerner Hill, itself frequently depicted in Wyeth’s paintings, to dance in the snow around a festively garlanded maypole topped by an evergreen. There are stories that Wyeth wanted to show his models celebrating at the news that the artist had died and would no longer infringe on their lives. There is also another person partially visible who is not readily identifiable, and there is the suggestion that there may be another person present . . . perhaps this is Wyeth himself joining his models to celebrate his own mortality. And why not? The artist felt strongly that it was best to be invisible whenever he was painting. What immediately strikes the viewer most is the stark whiteness of the painting. I know of no other artist who has made white such a vibrant and evocative hue. There is, after all, a lot of snow in Andrew Wyeth paintings. "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape - the loneliness of it - the dead feeling of winter," Wyeth once confessed. "Something waits beneath it - the whole story doesn’t show."
Yesterday I found myself drawn to the Brandywine River Museum to surround myself once more by many of the paintings that have meant so much to me for so long. And there among them was "Snow Hill." It was a bright sunny day and the warming temperatures were quickly thawing the snow that had fallen the previous week. We drove down Ring Road, past the Kuerner Farm that looks very much like it has for the past decades when Wyeth painted there. There were still patches of snow lurking in the shadows on Kuerner Hill. Looking all around I saw nothing but Andrew Wyeth paintings in this magical landscape.
Andrew Wyeth always came home to Chadds Ford. He loved this area because he was born here. "I don’t think a country makes an artist. I think an artist makes the country," states Wyeth. "It’s what you bring to it - what’s inside you that’s really important." Chadds Ford was in Wyeth through and through. Just look at the paintings arising from his years there. It felt right to be there in Chadds Ford on a pleasant winter’s day. I kept going back to stand in front of "Snow Hill." It is a beautiful and haunting painting. But I can find no reason to dance or celebrate. Andrew Wyeth is gone and the likes of him will not pass this way again. Snow Hill has become a very sad place indeed.
NEXT WEEK: Beyond Snow Hill - A Few More Parting Words
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