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Andrew Wyeth: The Greenville Collection at Greenville County Museum of Art
The Museum owns twenty-four watercolors by Andrew Wyeth, which the artist himself has described as "the very best collection of my watercolors in any public museum in this country." Wyeth has said that watercolor is his favorite medium, because it is the most expressive. All of Wyeth's favorite subjects are represented, from Maine to Chadds Ford, and from the Olsons to Helga. The earliest work in the collection was done in 1966, and several works from the 1990s are also included in this 2002 continuing exhibition.
Excerpts from the label text on the walls of the exhibition are reprinted below:
A Master of Watercolor
Andrew Wyeth: The Greenville Collection demonstrates the artist's tremendous facility with the watercolor medium. Pole Gate reveals his talent for wet, transparent strokes, while Free Rein is a testament to Wyeth's control of drybrush. Here the water has literally been squeezed from the brush, creating an opaque effect.
A consummate master of watercolor, Wyeth follows in the tradition of Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. In 1937, at the youthful age of twenty, Wyeth inaugurated his long and successful career with a sold-out exhibition of watercolors. He continues to excel in watercolor and acknowledges it as his favorite medium.
Wyeth and Modern Art
Although Andrew Wyeth has been painting for most of this century, he is rarely considered a modern artist. Typically he is valued for his use of recognizable subject matter. But underlying his images is an unique approach to his medium and his message.
Paintings such as Half-Brother and Bonfire dispute the idea that he is a conventional painter. In both he has expressively experimented with his materials, even tearing his paper and scoring it with the end of his brush. The areas of the fire in particular are virtual essays in abstract expressionist technique.
Many of Andrew Wyeth's paintings are about memory, not only his own, but also the collective memories of his viewers. In Before Six the references to America's past are obvious: the Colonial-style fireplace, the family portraits on the mantel, and the antique clock.
For Wyeth this interior has special significance: it is the room where he spent time with his father, N. C. Wyeth. Here the elder Wyeth told his children about the stories he was illustrating, such as The Boy's King Arthur and Treasure Island. Forty years after his father's death Andrew painted Before Six as a kind of nostalgic tribute to him.
The title of the painting can be read literally, in terms of the hands on the clock, or more obliquely as a reference to Wyeth's childhood.
"She was my most perfect model, and part of why she was so satisfying was that she worked hard at it. . . . Helga posed nonstop." --Andrew Wyeth
Thus, Wyeth described his most famous model, Helga Testorf, a German woman who came to nurse a neighbor. Wyeth portrayed her in numerous guises, indoors and out, clothed and nude.
In The Blonde Helga wears her signature loden coat and trudges through a wintry landscape haunted by gnarled trees. Confidently, she confronts nature. Complementing the left to right diagonal of The Blonde, in Barefoot Helga dashes in the opposite direction, toward a dimly lit doorway. Here her figure is balanced by the rectangle of the wardrobe which is animated by the uniforms and the helmet. For Wyeth these are symbols for absent individuals: his father who used Revolutionary War costumes in his book illustrations, and his neighbor, Karl Kuerner, a German soldier.
Many viewers may not recognize that Andrew Wyeth is a very profound and complicated artist. Paintings such as Concert Grand reveal his great depth.
There is a simple explanation for the image: the hands are a bronze cast of Wyeth's, given to him by a friend. One cold winter they rested on a window sill through which the artist could view the icy Brandywine River. In the painting he has combined the two motifs to achieve a surreal effect.
Another meaning can be found in Wyeth's past: the memory of a drowning of several black children, whom his brother tried to rescue. N.C. Wyeth, the father, received a letter with a clipping enclosed about this episode, and immediately concluded that his eldest son was dead. Upon realizing that Nat was a hero, he wrote his mother:
I know that if anyone had the courage to do a thing like that it would
be him. Nevertheless, the incident and the unfortunate way in which it impressed
me clung to me all day. . . . It was just as though he had been dead and
A mood of quiet reflection pervades both The Letter and the still life Cranberries. The two paintings are interconnected in other ways as well. There is a simple narrative link: the woman writing the letter is the artist's wife Betsy, and she is also the one who picked the cranberries near the Wyeth home in Maine.
There are also formal connections such as the motif of light pouring through a window, balancing the figure and the objects. In The Letter the window is open, and the bright and clear sun enters at a sharp angle. In Cranberries the sun is warmer in color and higher in the sky, in keeping with the vertical format. Balance is further achieved in both paintings by the large areas of "emptiness," where all that is visible is the artist's wondrous technical ability to render atmosphere.
Fact and Fancy
The model in both Glass House and Buttercups is one of Wyeth's neighbors in Chadds Ford, Helen Sipala. She and her husband own the historic nineteenth-century house where she is sitting and where Howard Pyle once conducted his school for illustrators.
In Glass House she confronts the viewer directly with an upright pose that mirrors her architectural setting. In addition, her face is rendered through the tightly controlled application of drybrush, in contrast to the overall fluidity of Buttercups. In subject, too, Buttercups is more fanciful. Loving to dress up his models, Wyeth has painted Sipala in the uniform of a nun, complete with an elaborate headdress. She gazes across the valley toward her house, a theme reminiscent of Wyeth's masterpiece Christina's World.
A Maine Character
Since his childhood Wyeth has spent extended periods of each summer in Maine. With its barren coastline, old buildings, and craggy individuals, the area has provided him with a vast reservoir of subject matter.
Wyeth immortalized Maine and Christina Olson in his famous painting Christina's World, where she crawls toward her home. While Christina was his preferred model, he painted other members of the family, including her brother Fred. This portrayal is unusual with its low placement of the sitter and its strong contrasts of dark and light. The weathered window frame, with its carefully delineated hook, reinforces his rugged personality.
New England Vernacular
In his paintings of Maine, Wyeth frequently depicts old, weathered houses, emphasizing their geometry and wooden qualities. He often endows them with a sense of mystery, as if they are shipwrecks cast up on the shore.
Sea Through is further distinguished by the enigmatic shell that so dramatically contrasts with the rectangle of the school house. The oversize shell-so large a person can sit in it-is something of an oddity. House Flag (to the left) also has its puzzling quality: what is the relation of the shadowy figure of Betsy Wyeth in the window and the flag flying above her?
Active and Contemplative Women
Over the years Wyeth has painted a great number of people-not as formal portraits, but more as character studies. Despite the fact they are likenesses of women of about the same age, Skullcap and The Liberal display two very different personalities.
Skullcap, an outdoors woman from Maine, self-confidently gazes at the viewer. She forms a solid triangle; her placement slightly to the left of center against a white wall makes her form appear more monumental. Although the sitter in The Liberal dominates the center of the painting, she is more passive, consumed with her own thoughts and unaware of the viewer. From her dark interior she looks off into the distance, introducing an aspect of mystery.
I work with impulsiveness. I use eleven kinds of brushes, camel hair or sable or an old house painter's brush. Sometimes a scrub brush. I've torn pictures in half trying to get into them, to get structure and weight and form and succulence and passion. --Andrew Wyeth
The Study for Turtleneck, beautifully displays Wyeth's methodology. Working with paint and pencil he addresses the overall composition as well as the most important aspects of the painting, namely the delineation of the sitter's face. He has also started on what will become the reflection in a mirror: the back of Andy Davis's head and a stove pipe. Because Wyeth viewed this is a preliminary study, he has only brushed watercolor onto the right hand side in the most general and liquid manner.
Similar, but Different
The pairing of Tundra, a portrait of the artist's wife, and Captain Cook is a natural one. First of all, they are related; he is married to Betsy Wyeth's sister Gwen. Secondly, the two portraits are compositionally similar, with a half-length figure in a horizontal format.
In both the artist has left large expanses of the fine watercolor paper untouched. Both also display a range of paint handling, from very watery strokes to the mascara-like rendering of drybrush. Moreover, Wyeth views each of them as a strong and independent individual, gazing in a visionary fashion beyond the limits of the picture.
The Cycles of Nature
I painted this one. . . during a strong northeast gale. I wanted to capture the power of the sea-my God, it almost overtook the island! The power and horror of the raging sea! The whale rib signifies to me the depth of the sea-something thrown up from so deep down. Frighteningly deep. --Andrew Wyeth
Echoing Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick, Wyeth is fascinated by the overwhelming power of nature. In Whale Rib he juxtaposes the hard arc of the rib against a dune that is animated by green grass. The entire composition is energized by the flow of formal elements as well as by the wind and the surge of the sea.
A Symbol of the Wilderness
The moose may be seen as a quintessential symbol of the rugged wilds of Maine. Wyeth's powerful, yet polarized treatments of the majestic beast in Big Game and Bull Moose state the importance of the life-and-death cycle as a central theme in his work.
The gleaming antlered skull in Big Game hovers and broods in the severe confines of Wyeth's bedroom. The ironic title, the free play of light from the outside, and the inviting open window contrast sharply with the bold, unbridled vitality of Bull Moose, in which the startled animal is caught momentarily by the artist's broad, spontaneous brush.
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