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Andrew Wyeth: Painting psychological reality in pastoral America



The renowned American modern painter Andrew Wyeth was born on this day, July 12, 1917. He was a realist painter who painted the land and people around him, in the American countryside of Pennsylvania, as well as his summer home in Maine.

Wyeth was born in a family of artists, and was home-schooled due to his frail health. His father, the popular American illustrator N. C. Wyeth taught him the art of painting. In his teens, Andrew was creating illustrations under his father’s name. While Andrew learned figure study and watercolour from his father while growing up, he later learned the technique of egg tempera from his brother-in-law, the American painter Peter Hurd. Apart from this training, he studied art history on his own.

Andrew Wyeth, along with a few other American painters of his time, is placed by art historians under the “American Regionalist” movement. This was a realist movement characterized by scenes of rural and small-town US, particularly the Midwest. As per Wikipedia, “It arose in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression, and ended in the 1940s due to the end of World War II and a lack of development within the movement.” Within this movement, there arose a number of painters with distinct styles. Wyeth’s works are recognizable by their often placid, muted palette, as well as lucid compositions comprising few objects, all appearing to be part of a cohesive whole. Many of his paintings depict the psychological reality of the subject, or are imbued with strong emotion conveyed through the composition.


What’s remarkable about Wyeth’s works is that in his figurative paintings, the landscape isn’t a passive backdrop, but a lively element, somehow interacting with the figure rather than just being a dead stage. In some of his works, the landscape seems to impose upon the figure, about to engulf and overwhelm them. Wyeth achieved this feat by manipulating the size and placement of the backdrop, such as slightly tilting it towards the subject, or enlarging its size. These tactics imbue the backdrop, often a natural setting, with anticipated movement.



One brilliant example of such pictorial manoeuvring is ‘Christina’s World’, one of the most iconic works of Modern American Art, and perhaps the most famous of Wyeth’s paintings. The landscape here imposes upon the figure, appearing to set to engulf and overwhelm her. This befits the theme of the painting, whose subject is Christina Olson, a neighbour of Wyeth’s in his summer residence at Maine. Christina was crippled from the waist down, and refused to use a wheelchair. She instead used to crawl using her arms to drag her body. Wyeth one day noticed her from his window, picking blueberries in this manner, and was inspired to paint her. He deliberately made the field larger than its actual size, in order to heighten the psychological drama of the scene. Wyeth was often painting in tempera during this part of his career, and here he skillfully added detail to the grassy patch in the form of brush strokes representing grass blades. This further heightened the liveliness of the ground beneath and in front of the figure. The small expanse of the farm thus actually gets conveyed as the “world” of Christina, that she undauntedly and perseveringly treads along despite the monumental obstacle it provides, given her physical condition. This work is a great example of Wyeth\’s ability to convey psychological reality through skillful manipulation of the realistic language of painting.

‘Christina’s World’ has proven to be a very popular work, even inspiring the set design and cinematography of a feature film in the 1970s, ‘Days of Heaven’, made by the acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Mallick. This movie, released thirty years after the acclaimed painting, also contains scenes inspired by other paintings by Wyeth, thereby very aptly capturing the near-haunting expanse of pastoral United States at the time.


Wyeth passed away at the ripe old age of 91, leaving behind not only a rich legacy of paintings, but also one more generation of painters via his younger son James Wyeth, who carries on the Wyeth legacy of painting.






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