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Andrew Wyeth: America’s Preeminent Artist

Arnold Newman (American, 1918-2006)  Andrew Wyeth, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1948, printed 1970s

Arnold Newman (American, 1918-2006) Andrew Wyeth, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1948, printed 1970s

Andrew Wyeth was an iconic figure in American painting of the 20th century. Son and student of famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, the young man seemed destined to follow his father’s footsteps yet developed his own individual style. His father’s illustrations took as subjects active figures and colorful places from around the word, while Andrew Wyeth found artistic inspiration in friends and family and his immediate surroundings of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Port Clyde, Maine. Andrew Wyeth’s contemplative landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, rendered with delicate realism and underlying abstraction, become metaphors for memory, nostalgia, and loss.His palette, too, was more subdued, choosing the subtle shades of nature rather than the vibrant colors of his father.

Andrew Wyeth painted mainly in watercolor and tempera, and he was a master of the technique described as drybrush. In an interview with friend and Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving in 1976, the same year as Corn and Grist (Lot 286 in Skinner’s September 23 Fine Paintings & Sculpture auction) was painted, Wyeth explained, “I work in drybrush when my emotion gets deep enough into the subject. So I paint with a smaller brush, dip it into color, splay out the brush and bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture and color with my fingers so that there is only a very small amount of paint left. Then when I stroke the paper with the dried brush, it will make various distinct strokes at once, and I start to develop the forms of whatever object it is until they start to have real body…Drybrush is layer upon layer. It is what I would call a definite weaving process. You weave the layers of drybrush over and within the broad washes of watercolor.”

Andrew Newell Wyeth (American, 1917-2009) Corn and Grist (Lot 286, Estimate: $150,000-250,000)

Andrew Newell Wyeth (American, 1917-2009) Corn and Grist (Lot 286, Estimate: $150,000-250,000)

However, for Wyeth technique was never an end in itself, nor was realism. He is quoted, “You can have all the technique in the world and can paint the object, but that doesn’t mean you get down to the juice of it all. It’s what’s inside you, the way you translate the object – and that’s pure emotion.”  Writing for Artnews in 1950, Elaine de Kooning described Andrew Wyeth as a “master of the magic-realist technique.”  Without “tricks of technique, sentiment or obvious symbolism,” she wrote, “Wyeth, through his use of perspective, can make a prosperous farmhouse kitchen, or a rolling pasture as bleak and haunting as a train whistle in the night.” That same year, Wyeth was lauded, along with Jackson Pollock, in Time and ARTnews, as one of the greatest American artists.

Wyeth’s famous images such as Christina’s World (Museum of Modern Art, 1948) have come to represent America as much as Grant Wood and Andy Warhol, but throughout his career Wyeth’s works have been both loved and scorned.  It has been said that Wyeth committed at least two unpardonable art world sins, he maintained a realist style during an age of abstraction and he achieved extraordinary popular success. In 1959 Wyeth sold his painting Groundhog Day to the Philadelphia Museum for $31,000, the largest sum that a museum had ever paid for a work by a living American painter, and in 1965, Life magazine proclaimed him  “America’s preeminent artist.”

In Wyeth’s obituary in the New York Times  (January 16, 2009), Michael Kimmelman recounted the story that, in response to a 1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, art historian Robert Rosenblum nominated Andrew Wyeth for both categories.

Come see Andrew Wyeth’s painting Corn and Grist, amongst other works by notable American & European artists, during auction previews on Wednesday, September 21 from 12-5PM; Thursday, September 22 from 12-8PM; and Friday, September 23 from 9-10AM.

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