Jamie Wyeth: Proteus in Paint
by Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner
Figure 1: Jamie Wyeth, in front of Point Lookout Farm, October 1997, copyright Joyce Hill Stoner
(Click on bordered images to enlarge them)
Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N. C. Wyeth, has moved through a series of styles since his first one-man exhibition at Knoedler Gallery in 1966 at the age of 20. In the 1960s and '70s he created portraits radiating the intense humanity of his subjects; in the '70s and the '80s he experimented with the textures and characters of animals he knew well, and in the 1990s he moved to a lighthouse in Maine and began creating eerie painterly dreamscapes populated by syntheses of people and animals of his present informed by his past. He works in oil, charcoal, pen-and-ink or watercolor illustrations, and mixed media on toned boards. His choices of media and subjects are different from those of his father but refract the legacy of his grandfather. Jamie's works sometimes communicate a tongue-in-cheek humor but always radiate a hedonistic delight in both the materials of art and the textures of his subjects. He studied painting with his artist aunt, Carolyn Wyeth (1909-1994), giving him a direct line to the oversized approaches of his grandfather. As Carolyn Wyeth said about her father to David McCullough for a Smithsonian video, "The Wyeths: A Father and his Family," "He did everything in a big way; if he bought paint he bought too much paint-which I do." Jamie's sensuous, juicy, and generous paint surfaces draw on the heritage of both his aunt and grandfather.
Jamie Wyeth's love of the medium of oil dates from oil paint tubes left in Carolyn Wyeth's studio (which had formerly been occupied by N. C. Wyeth): "It would have been very abnormal for me not to be in a room that did not have paint lying around. I do remember oil as my first interest. I have an Aunt Carolyn who painted and I suppose my real interest started in oil just because I loved the way she squeezed it out-it looked so edible, you know. When I was six or something I would walk in and see it squirt-burnt sienna and raw umber, and I swear that is the only reason I got interested in oil. Just the consistency looked so wonderful. And then I tried them. My father works in tempera which I did try. All the properties he likes I dislike and vice versa. I like the moistest ones. He likes the dryness of tempera. I think these choices are purely personal."1
Jamie carried out one tempera painting, "Merlin," of the magician, an owl, and a bookcase which he left unfinished, probably at about age twelve. He had read about Merlin in T. H. White's "The Once and Future King" and in 1958 had asked to be taken out of school and tutored at home. For the next two years he studied with his Aunt Carolyn in the afternoons following tutoring sessions in the morning. He notes "it was a lot of drawing cubes and shapes and just working in black and white. No painting . . which I think probably was good. I think it was to instill some discipline-if I was going to paint I really better buckle down."2
Jamie has several traits in common with his aunt. Carolyn Wyeth's vehicles of choice were rich oil paint and charcoal drawings on paper. Carolyn loved animals, particularly chickens and dogs; Jamie has painted many animals, including chickens and dogs. Carolyn said to Richard Meryman in an interview "I think all great stuff comes out of being alone. At the time you may feel lonely, but it's doing something wonderful to you."3 Jamie has moved to a lighthouse on an island in order to be alone more of the time. Carolyn told Meryman, "People don't mean very much to me."4 Jamie told Meryman, "People say, 'Jamie can get along with people.' I can because they mean nothing to me-except for the person I'm working on."5
Jamie Wyeth also painted alongside of his father Andrew for at least three years in the early 1960s. Perhaps due partially to the selection of different media and subjects, the father and son have remained close artistic colleagues. Jamie has said: "Quite simply, Andrew Wyeth is my closest friend-and the painter whose work I most admire. The father/son relationship goes out the window when we talk about one another's work. We are completely frank-as we have nothing to gain by being nice."6 Each frankly and articulately discusses the work of the other with knowledge based on a lifetime of shared discourse.
By the age of 17, Jamie Wyeth had painted portraits of an elderly hermit and a gentle retarded man, each with a lapidary surface, translucency, and exactitude characteristic of sixteenth-century German oil technique.
Right: Figure 2: "Portrait of Shorty," 1963, oil, 18 x 20", private collection, copyright 1963, James B. Wyeth.
The critics called his work reactionary, but collectors then and now have demonstrated a continuing demand for his works. By the age of 23 he had painted a powerful, probing portrait of his father with the painted veils and oil richness cousin to work by Thomas Eakins
Below: Figure 3: "Portrait of Andrew Wyeth," 1969, oil 24 x 32", private collection, copyright 1969, James B. Wyeth
The portraits of his father and of former president John F. Kennedy were shown at the Coe Kerr Gallery in 1974. In the catalogue for that exhibition, Ted Stebbins, now Director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts but then of Yale, noted, "James Wyeth is a genuine master of the portrait . . . at twenty eight he has reached artistic maturity." In the next several years Wyeth painted portraits of artist Andy Warhol and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (both painted at Andy Warhol's "Factory," located on 860 Broadway beginning in 1974), Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and President-elect Jimmy Carter.
Wyeth took the preparation for portrait painting seriously and spent hours with his sitters. He states: "To me, a portrait is not so much the actual painting, but just spending the time with the person, traveling with him, watching him eat, watching him sleep. When I work on a portrait, it's really osmosis. I try to become the person I'm painting. A successful portrait isn't about the sitter's physical characteristics-his nose, eyeballs and whatnot-but more the mood and the overall effect. I try not to impose anything of mine on him. I try to get to the point where if the sitter painted, he'd paint a portrait just the way I'm doing it."7 To understand human anatomy he had also dissected corpses in a New York morgue in the 1960s.
In 1968, Wyeth began painting large-scale animal portraits, continuing his intense focus on his subjects but varying his textures to suit fur, wool, or feathers. The Wyeth family has traditionally shown respect and admiration for animal colleagues. Carolyn Wyeth's fondest final companions were her dogs. Andrew's paintings radiate a deep kinship with animals from dogs to deer to spiders. Jamie notes that "Well, to me they're just individuals that I know. I don't consciously sit down and say: 'Well, now I'm going to do an animal painting that will be a balance for my people painting.' No! It's just they're here, and I've only painted animals that I've known. I've never painted a kangaroo, for instance. Or I have no interest in painting a giraffe. People would say: 'You should go to a zoo.' Well, I never wanted to go to a zoo."8
Instead of going West and dissecting a horse as his grandfather did, he has collected taxidermy specimens, kept a wolf in his living room, studied sharks in a specially built tank, constructed a studio in his barn, and raised an abandoned vulture. He has set up his easel on the back of the truck loaded with bales of Angus feed; the cattle would cluster around and every half an hour he would kick out another bale. In the 1970s, for both easel paintings and pen-and-ink illustrations for "The Stray" written by his mother Betsy James Wyeth, he drew and painted definitive portraits of particular pigs he knew well. His attention to accuracy and detail of animal anatomy is such that when "Portrait of Pig"
Right: Figure 4: "Portrait of Pig," 1970, oil, 48 x 84", Collection of the Brandywine River Museum, copyright 1970, James B. Wyeth
was exhibited at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, the "Hog King of Nebraska" came up to shake hands and accurately diagnosed a snout condition based on the painting. Wyeth's hedonistic paint application is evident in the seemingly edible pink paint of the pig's back or the lush squeezed-from-the-tube sheep wool of "The Islander"
Left: Figure 5: "The Islander,"1975 , oil, 34 x 44", private collection, copyright 1975, James B. Wyeth.
The pig's skin and the sheep wool have tracks of fiercely wielded bush handles in the encrusted topography of the surfaces. The grass around the pig's feet resembles an abstract expressionist pattern of spatters. In the early 1970s Wyeth created a stunning essay in tactile paint to depict hay: "I wanted to do the definitive portrait of a bale of hay. I lived and breathed that thing for a month. Dreamed about it. Thought about it. I would go up at night and look at it in different light. God knows why."9
The textures and surfaces of the feathers of geese and chickens were a focus for Wyeth's work in the late 1970s and early '80s combined with occasional accents and variation in surface gloss. In some of his mixed media works on paper in the late 1970s and early '80s; he would varnish only a small area, such as the eye of a goose, noting "in the actual goose that was the liquid area among the flats and tones."10
Right: Figure 6: "Goose," 1981, mixed media, copyright 1981, James B. Wyeth.
"Goose" (1981) shows a black glistening eye with this localized varnish combined with his close observations of the personality and feather patterns of a goose in motion with wings outstretched. Sadly, such special effects are often changed by restoration treatments; a painting conservator might misunderstand the artist's intent and apply an overall varnish to homogenize the surface of this or later paintings Wyeth varnished locally. (Intentional surface variations in paintings by Kasimir Malevich, 1878-1935, or Juan Gris, 1887-1927, have been muted or altered by subsequent treatments.)
Although he chose to leave regular schooling after the sixth grade, Wyeth is exceptionally well read and intense about his interests. The painting "Kleberg"
Left: Figure 7: Kleberg, oil, 30 1/2 x 42 1/2", Terra Museum of American Art, copyright 1984 James B. Wyeth
poses another animal colleague in front of a shelf of books that have important meanings to the artist. The titles on the book spines pay homage to his grandfather's teacher Howard Pyle("Pyle's Book of Pirates"), his grandfather ("Treasure Island," illustrated by N. C. Wyeth), his father ("Christina's World"), his mother ("The Stray," written by Betsy Wyeth and illustrated by Jamie), his mentor and friend Lincoln Kirstein ("Lay This Laurel," authored by Kirstein about the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston), John F. Kennedy (represented by a Kennedy biography; Wyeth's wife Phyllis had worked for Kennedy and Wyeth also drew Bobby and Teddy Kennedy), a favorite children's book ("Wind in the Willows"), two admired artists (books on Degas and Eakins), and two especially significant novels: "The Magus" by John Fowles and "The Wanderer" by Alain-Fournier. Wyeth notes that the proud ram on the Maine island of Manana of "The Islander" (Figure 5, mentioned above) contains elements of Conchis, the great lord of a Greek island in "The Magus." John Fowles has recently visited Wyeth's island in Maine and is also obsessed with ravens, a theme in Wyeth's work from 1980 to the present (see Figure 11, to be discussed below).
"The Wanderer" by Alain-Fournier returns as a theme and title for a 1992 Wyeth painting "The Wanderer"
Right: Figure 8: The Wanderer, oil, 28 x 48", private collection, copyright 1992 James B. Wyeth
of an androgynous youth who could be looking at a vista of his lost childhood, personifying "Le Grand Meaulnes" in the novel. Alain-Fournier's novel also involves associations with Jamie's grandfather N. C. Wyeth who gave a copy of the book to Betsy James Wyeth shortly before he was killed at a train crossing in 1945. John Fowles wrote the "Afterword" for several editions of "The Wanderer" and describes his own obsession with the life of Alain-Fournier.
"The Wanderer" (Figure 8) and "The Meteor Shower"
Right: Figure 9: Meteor Shower, oil and essence of pearl, 33 x 48", private collection, copyright 1993 James B. Wyeth
both feature an historical costume (a blue wool jacket from the War of 1812) which contains associations with Wyeth's family heritage. The jacket worn by the youth in Figure 8 and by an eerie scarecrow form in Figure 9 was owned and previously painted by Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth. Jamie's interest in unusual surfaces, evident in the varnished eye of the goose, returns with the mixture of ground-up pearls in an oil medium visible in the meteor, the stars, and some of the highlights on the water of "Meteor Shower." Wyeth's 1991 move to his own island brought new strange watery dreamlike vistas to his works.
In the 1990s Wyeth has painted a number of adolescents in poetic dreamscapes, following "The Wanderer" (Figure 8, mentioned above) or "If Once You Have Slept on an Island"
Left: Figure 10. If Once You Have Slept on an Island, oil, 30 x 36", private collection, copyright 1996 James B. Wyeth
These works have resonance with a quote from Alain-Fournier in a letter of 1911: "I like the marvelous only when it is strictly enveloped in reality."11 These paintings have a new strangeness and a sense of hidden marvels, terrors, or longings while appearing realistic. Many of the figures in his paintings of the '90s are composites of several actual people; some figures combine his nephew, a female school teacher, his wife Phyllis, or young male and female teenage models from Monhegan or Tenants Harbor, Maine. This synthesis further neutralizes the identity and sometimes even the gender of the subject while emphasizing settings of the imagination. It is as if Wyeth has combined the musings and yearnings expressed by Alain-Fournier with the vista-broadening power of androgyny described by Virginia Woolf.
The troubled-looking young woman of "If Once You Have Slept on an Island" (Figure 10) sitting on the tousled bedclothes in nightmarish light seems haunted by wild imaginings; even the picture on the wall is askew. The title is actually derived from a poem by Rachel Field with a slightly less angst-ridden mood:
Blue water and wheeling gulls also haunt many of Wyeth's paintings of the 1990s. However, the worried young woman in the painting seems to be seeing more than just blue water and wheeling gulls in her dreams. The smooth, rich surface of this painting is also selectively varnished, adding to a general sense of strangeness.
Animals may also be the actors in these painterly dreamscapes. "The Thief"
Left: Figure 11. The Thief, oil, 36 1/2 x 30 1/2", private collection, copyright 1996 James B. Wyeth
combines Wyeth's intense study of the raven habit, visage, and personality (which began in 1980 with a wall-sized portrayal of a raven) with his new island domain, and his interest in antique collecting. The artist owns a number of sailor's valentines, and the small locket with a bright blue eye in the lower left of the painting is a token a sailor might give his girlfriend before leaving on a voyage with the admonition "I have my eye on you." If the artist were to include a shelf of books in one of his paintings of the 1990s, he might include "Ravens in Winter" by Bernd Heinrich, 1989, who has advised him on cultivating friendships with the ravens of Maine.
In "Comet" of 1997 another marvelous but realistic setting with dramatic clouds and
Right: Figure 12. Comet, oil, 48 x 40", private collection, copyright 1997 James B. Wyeth
otherworldly lighting is provided for an eerie gull at rest in front of a supernatural lighthouse. The surface of the rocks around the gull is a tapestry of scrapings, fingerprints, and rich, luscious oil; the gull is a meringue of mellow cream-colored oil brushwork with cool white back light outlining its form. The edible quality of oil paint that the artist sensed at the age of six has been maintained and enhanced.
According to Frank Goodyear, "Jamie Wyeth has said that he thinks art books should concentrate on the artist's work, including, perhaps, a small amount of biographical detail but avoiding the traditional scrim of interpretation that comes between artist and audience."12 On his own life Wyeth comments succinctly, "I work pretty much all day every day. Rather boring person. I mean it's not that I'm such a great workhorse, but it's just that there is nothing else I am really interested in doing." However, a small amount of biographical detail is visible from the works themselves. Wyeth moved to a lighthouse in 1991 and now spends more time in Maine. Views of a lighthouse, watery vistas, and indigenous Maine birds resound through his paintings of the 1990s, occasionally combined with some of the decorative objects he collects. The books pictured in "Kleberg" (Figure 7) inform the genealogy of his imagination. From other biographical details-his stint studying human anatomy at a New York morgue, his portraits of notable figures of politics and the arts, his sketching and recording of events during space launches or in the Supreme Court during Nixon's impeachment hearings-one would expect acute powers of observation and minimal revelation of self. His works and his conversation attest to this. Friend of the family, Lincoln Kirstein, described Jamie Wyeth's vision: "Rapid, precise, dispassionate, here is etched with breathless candor a pageant worthy of comparison with Daumier's ironic tribunals."13 Lincoln Kirstein himself was described by Richard Meryman: "Consigning his life and his imposing powers to the arts on the purest level, he lived exactly on his own terms."14 The same could well be said of Jamie Wyeth.
Aware of his grandfather's angst about being declared only an "illustrator," Wyeth notes, "We're charged, my father and I, with being a pack of illustrators. I've always taken it as a supreme compliment. What's wrong with illustration? There's this thing now that illustrations are sort of secondary to art and I think it's a bunch of crap."15 Jamie has recently illustrated a children's book, "Cabbages and Kings" by Elizabeth Seabrooke, 1997, with freely painted mixed media on toned paper using the paper as a major design element in a technique worthy of Manet.
Jamie Wyeth lives on his own terms with a healthy respect for his heritage and a unique ability to translate acute observations into a spectrum of visual experiences in an impressive range of styles from the laser-like intensity of "Portrait of Shorty" (Figure 1) to the archetypal but ironic encrusted image of an animal friend in "Portrait of Pig" (Figure 4) to the eerie painterly dreamscape of "Comet" (Figure 12).
by Joyce Hill Stoner, November 1998
1 Jamie Wyeth, interview with the author 15 June 1982.
3 Richard Meryman. An Interview with Carolyn Wyeth. (Chadds Ford, PA: Brandywine River Museum, 1979), 14.
4 Ibid., 7.
5 Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 274.
6 Portland Museum of Art, label copy, for the exhibition, "Andrew Wyeth at 80: A Celebration," July-October, 1997.
7 Sandra Carpenter and Greg Schaber, "Jamie Wyeth: His Art and Insights," The Artists Magazine 14, no. 8 (August 1997), p. 38.
8 Jamie Wyeth, interview with the author 17 September 1998.
9 David Kinney, "The Grandson Also Rises," The Wilmington News Journal (6 February 1998), D3.
10 J. Wyeth interview, 15 June 1982.
11 Quoted by John Fowles as an epigraph for his "Afterword," in Alain-Fournier, The Lost Domain (Le Grand Meaulnes), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 285.
12 Frank H. Goodyear, Jr. Jamie Wyeth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), 5.
13 Lincoln Kirstein, "James Wyeth," An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1987), 158.
14 Meryman, Andrew Wyeth, 239.
15 Kinney, D2.
biography of the author:
Joyce Hill Stoner has taught for the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation for 22 years and served as its director for 15 years. Both an art historian and a practicing paintings conservator, Stoner has treated paintings for many museums and private collectors and was senior conservator of the team that recently completed the five-year project of examination and treatment of Whistler's Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This summer she supervised the treatment of a 19' x 60' mural by N. C. Wyeth. Stoner is a Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude graduate of the College of William and Mary. She received her Master's degree in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University (1970), her diploma in conservation at the NYU Conservation Center (1973), and a Ph.D. in Art History (1995). Stoner has authored more than 30 book chapters and articles, and has recently been studying the paintings of the Wyeth family and published "A Closer Look: Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth" for the Delaware Art Museum and the Farnsworth Art Museum in June 1998 to accompany the exhibition "Wondrous Strange." She spoke on this topic to an international audience of conservators at the National Gallery of Ireland in September 1998.
Ed.: Photographs of Andrew Wyeth, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth by family photographer Peter Ralston are available on the photographer's website. Visit the Wyeth Center and Wondrous Strange: Inaugural Exhibition for the Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine to learn about the Wyeth Family's Center at the Farnsworth Museum in Maine; also see Jamie Wyeth Editions and a thorough listing of Jamie Wyeth paintings on the internet. A large body of the Wyeths' work may also be found at the Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania.
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