Prominent Twentieth Century American Realist
By Margarita Karasoulas
Nationally recognized as one of the leading artists of the twentieth century, Andrew Wyeth’s enduring images of rural America hold a unique place in contemporary American painting.
VII. Suggested Resources
Born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Andrew Newell Wyeth was the son of the famous artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth and Carolyn Brenneman Bockius. As a child, Wyeth was tutored at home and began an apprenticeship with his father at the age of fifteen. Under this rigorous instruction, Andrew studied Rimmer’s anatomy, trained in painting still life, and practiced the precision and decorative elegance of line derived from Howard Pyle.1 Naturally gifted and sharing his family’s bent for art, Wyeth demonstrated a keen sense of observation and an exceptional facility to record the visible world.
Wyeth achieved success at a remarkably early age. In 1936, he exhibited at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia and created illustrations for the book The Nub, which garnered instant praise and recognition from critics, who noted that he was “following in his father’s footsteps.”2 Wyeth’s first solo exhibition of watercolors at the Macbeth Gallery in 1937, at the age of twenty, cemented his reputation in the art world and presaged his future popularity with the American public. His watercolors sold out at the opening, and critics likened his works to the greatest artists in the field, including Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent.3
Throughout his career, Wyeth found inspiration in his immediate surroundings: his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and his summer residence in Cushing, Maine. Within a vast oeuvre of landscapes, portraits, and figure studies, he captured the homely, simple topography of the Brandywine River Valley and the craggy Maine coastline, often depicting weathered farm buildings and deserted fields, scenes that lacked sentimentality and saccharine treatment. Repeatedly, he painted people with whom he was personally associated, including his neighbors, the Kuerners and Olsons at their farms. In 1972, Wyeth began a chain of works based on Helga Testorf, another neighbor. After fourteen years, the series comprised 247 images dedicated to this sole individual.4 Wyeth painted with a deep attachment to what was known and familiar, frequently revisiting his subjects, a testament to the importance of time and place in his art. He acknowledged: “I don’t paint these hills around Chadds Ford because they’re better than the hills somewhere else… It’s that I was born here, lived here, things have a meaning for me.”5
Working primarily in watercolor and tempera, Wyeth showcased his precise draftsmanship and command of light and color. Watercolors were particularly conducive to quick execution and a more expressionistic, fluid handling. He also frequently worked in dry brush, weaving layers of color to achieve a dry, muted effect. During the 1940s, Wyeth began experimenting with tempera, a technique he learned from his brother-in-law, Peter Hurd. Wyeth was especially renowned for his innovations in this medium. The quick-drying pigment, mixed with the yolk of an egg and thinned with water, lent itself to the exact precision and minute details that he preferred.6
Deriving from the authentic tradition of Homer and Eakins, while integrating the precision and naturalism of the Hudson River school and the light-infused tranquility of the Luminists, Wyeth forged his own personal expression of twentieth century realism. He was regarded as a “painstaking microscopist” whose hyperreal details and sharp, photographic focus became a signature of his style.7 Wyeth paid scrupulous attention to facts and took great measures to mimic the exact features of his subject matter, which he termed “the truth of the object.”8 He possessed the ability to organize infinite detail into compositions of deceptive simplicity that demonstrated an underlying geometry and order.9
Wyeth’s works also convey a psychological tenor that became an important part of his aesthetic sensibility. Emotionally charged, tinged with nostalgia, and abundant in hidden symbolism, Wyeth’s seemingly familiar terrain evokes a suggestive, enigmatic drama. Isolation was a recurrent theme for the artist and human figures were often intentionally absent, as Wyeth maintained: “I think, very strongly, it’s what’s not there that’s important.”10
Wyeth’s stylistic tendencies remained consistent throughout his career, yielding a product that was at once unique, recognizable, and inextricably linked to the artist’s own life and experiences. Though he worked in a realist style in an aberration from the mainstream Abstract Expressionists, his authentic images of rural, small town life resonated with the middle-class and held universal appeal for Americans. As one critic aptly described, Wyeth was “a personally dedicated realist with no objections to abstraction, he contradicted the market when abstract art was in the ascendant, affirmed a tradition that seemed outworn, and paradoxically won the admiration of both camps without joining the battle.”11
Wyeth cultivated a reputation as one of America’s most popular twentieth century artists and his images are widely regarded as icons of American culture. Though he enjoyed success throughout his career, his fame skyrocketed after his painting Christina’s World was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 1948. In 1950, he was selected by Time magazine (along with Jackson Pollock) as one of the greatest artists in modern American art. Additionally, Wyeth was the youngest member ever elected to the American Watercolor Society and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was the recipient of many honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the country. His works frequently set successive records for the highest prices paid by museums for the art of a living American.
In 1963, Wyeth became the first painter to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was later awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (1988) and the National Medal of the Arts (2007). In 1977, he was the first artist since John Singer Sargent elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and in 1980, became the first living American artist to be elected to Britain’s Royal Academy of Art. In 1971, the Brandywine River Museum opened in his beloved town of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, providing a fitting home for the subject and lived experience of Wyeth’s works. Andrew Wyeth died on January 16, 2009 at the age of ninety-one. Throughout a long and fruitful career, he exhibited
widely both nationally and internationally and received countless awards and distinctions. His works can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, National Gallery of Art, and Smithsonian Museum of American Art, among many others.
1917 Born July 12th in Chadds Ford, PA. Father was N.C. Wyeth, the famous artist and illustrator, and mother was Carolyn Brenneman Bockius
1923–1929 Educated at home by tutors
1932 Andrew’s father, N.C. Wyeth, began training fifteen-year old Andrew as an apprentice
1937 First one-man exhibition at Macbeth Gallery in New York at age twenty. All paintings sold
1939 Met his future wife, Betsy, who introduced him to model Christina Olson
1940 Married Betsy Merle James
Elected to membership of American Watercolor Society; youngest member ever to be elected (at age twenty-three)
1943 Participated in major group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, entitled “American Realists and Magic Realists” Son Nicholas Wyeth, born on September 21st
1945 Father and three-year old nephew were killed in a tragic accident when their car was struck by a train near Chadds Ford, PA
1946 Son, James Browning Wyeth, born on July 6th
1947 Received Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, New York
1948 Painted Christina’s World using Christina Olson as his model; later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, NY
1948–79 During this thirty-year period, Anna and Karl Kuerner (who died in 1979) served as models for Wyeth
1950 Along with Jackson Pollock, named America’s “preeminent artist” by Time
Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters
1955 Elected to membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (the youngest member ever elected)
1957 Awarded the George-Walter-Dawson Memorial Medal by the Philadelphia Watercolor Club
1959 Received the Arts Festival Award from the Philadelphia Museum of Art
1960 Awarded the Percy M. Owens Memorial Award by the Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Elected to membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, Massachusetts (youngest member ever to be elected)
1963 Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy, which was presented by President Johnson in December following the death of President Kennedy
Given honorary citizenship to the state of Maine
Given award by the periodical Art in America “for outstanding contribution to American art–1963”
Given award and medal by the Philadelphia Watercolor Club “for advancement of watercolor art–1963”
1965 Received gold medal “for preeminence in painting” from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, NY
1966 Awarded by the Governor’s Committee of 100,000 Pennsylvanians for the Promotion of Economic Growth the “1st Annual Award for Excellence in the Field of Creative Arts”
Appointed by the United States Post Office Department, Washington, D.C., to the Stamp Advisory Committee
Awarded the Gold Medal of Honor by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1967 Elected to membership of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia
Elected a member of the Smithsonian Art Commission, Washington, D.C.
1968 Death of Christina Olson on January 27th at age seventy-four
1969 Elected to honorary membership of the American Watercolor Society, NY
1970 Had first major solo exhibition of art ever held in the White House
Named to serve on the committee of the President’s Commission for the Observance of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the United Nations, Washington, D.C., by President Nixon
1971–85 Painted the series known as the Helga Collection
1973 Maine State award given to Andrew and Betsy Wyeth by the state of Maine
Mrs. N.C. Wyeth, Andrew’s mother, died on March 15th
1976 Metropolitan Museum of Art held major exhibition “Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons”
1977 Elected Associate Member to the Institut de France Académie des Beaux Arts, Paris
1978 Elected membership to the Soviet Academy of the Arts, Leningrad
1979 Karl Kuerner died on January 6th at age eighty
1980 First exhibition by a living American artist held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London
1981 Guest of honor, the Pennsylvania Society, Waldorf Astoria, NY, Eighty-third Anniversary; awarded Gold Medal
Received the Hazlett Memorial Award for Excellence in the Arts by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
1985 United Nations Postal Administration issued two stamps with paintings by Andrew Wyeth on the occasion of their fortieth anniversary
1986 Inducted as Honorary Member into the Royal Society of Painters and Watercolorists, London
Received the Hazlett Memorial Award for Excellence in the Arts
1988 Received the Congressional Gold Medal during President Reagan’s tenure
1989 The Philadelphia Art Alliance conferred the Award for Distinguished Achievement to Wyeth, along with his son, Jamie
1990 President George H.W. Bush awarded Congressional Medal to Andrew Wyeth (first artist to receive that honor) at a White House ceremony on October 24th
Nathaniel Convers Wyeth, brother, died on July 4th
1994 Carolyn Wyeth, sister, died on March 1st
Awarded the Dolphin Meal by the American Watercolor Society on April 29th at the time of the exhibition “One Hundred Twenty-seventh International Exhibition at the Galleries of the Salmagundi Club, NY”
2007 Received the National Medal of Arts from George W. Bush
Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Arkansas Art Center, AR
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, ME
Brandywine River Museum, PA
Canton Museum of Art, OH
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
City Art Museum of Saint Louis, MO
Colby College Art Museum, ME
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, TX
Delaware Art Museum, DE
Farnsworth Art Museum, ME
Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco, CA
Flint Institute of Arts, MI
Greenville County Museum of Art, SC
Harvard University Art Museum, MA
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, MO
Lyman Allyn Art Museum, CT
Maier Museum of Art, VA
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Mint Museum of Art, NC
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Museum of Modern Art, NY
National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City MO
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Portland Museum of Art, ME
Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Wadsworth Athenaeum, CT
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, PA
White House, Washington, DC
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
Wichita Art Museum, KS
Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, DE
1937–51 Macbeth Gallery, NY
1938–51 Currier Gallery of Art
1938–50 Doll & Richards, Boston
1943 Museum of Modern Art, NY
1953–58 M. Knoedler & Company, NY
1966–67 Travelling exhibition: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, Art Institute of Chicago
1970 White House, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
1976 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1987–88 Travelling exhibition: Academy of the Arts of the U.S.S.R., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Terra Museum of American Art
1996 Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO
1998 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
2006 Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
2009 Seattle Art Museum, WA
2017 Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Institute of Arts and Letters
American Philosophical Society
American Watercolor Society
Institut de France Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris
National Academy of Design
National Institute of Arts and Letters
Royal Society of Painters and Watercolorists, London
Soviet Academy of the Arts, Leningrad
1 Andrew Wyeth: Temperas, Watercolors, Dry Brush, Drawings, 1938 into 1966 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1966), p. 10-11.
2 “Drawing Good Enough To Be Used On Catalogue,” The Washington Post, February 9, 1936.
3 Beth Venn, “Process of Invention: The Watercolors of Andrew Wyeth” in Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998), p. 37.
4 Thomas Hoving, “Andrew Wyeth” in An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art (Chadds Ford: Brandywine River Museum, 1987), p. 123.
5 Michael Kammen, “Andrew Wyeth: Resonance and Dissonance” in Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998), p. 208.
6 Andrew Wyeth: Temperas, Watercolors, Dry Brush, Drawings, 1938 into 1966 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1966), p. 10.
7 “Painting: Andrew Wyeth, Art Loner,” New York Times, March 30, 1963.
8Andrew Wyeth: Temperas, Watercolors, Dry Brush, Drawings, 1938 into 1966 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1966), p. 10.
9 “Wyeth’s Quiet Art,” New York Times, November 24, 1963.
10 Michael Kammen, “Andrew Wyeth: Resonance and Dissonance” in Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998), p. 202.
11 “Wyeth’s Quiet Art,” New York Times, November 24, 1963.
VII. Suggested Resources
Hoving, Thomas. Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography. Kansas City, MO: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,
Meryman, Richard. Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996.
Wilmerding, John. Andrew Wyeth: the Helga Pictures. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Reproduction, including downloading of Andrew Wyeth works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.