When the Museum of Modern Art purchased Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World” in 1948, art critics were furious. The painting—which features a woman crippled by polio crawling up a hill toward an old farmhouse—was a crowd pleaser, hyper-realistic, and contrary to the current abstract trends. Wyeth quickly became (and has remained) one of the most popular and divisive American artists: beloved by hoi polloi but loathed by cognoscenti.
Yesterday would have been Wyeth’s 100th birthday, and the critics are finally starting to appreciate his genius. This summer, the Brandywine River Museum of Art near Wyeth’s home in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, is celebrating the artist with a comprehensive retrospective show. In addition, Yale University Press has released Andrew Wyeth, in Retrospect a book of critical essays commemorating his career. This is the second major Wyeth show since the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art organized a 2014 exhibit focusing solely on his fascination with windows.
It’s a touch ironic that Wyeth should be receiving all this attention while his contemporaries—Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Elaine de Kooning—over whom the art world once swooned, have been sequestered to quiet showrooms in urban haute bourgeois galleries. But it makes sense. Unlike the abstract expressionists, Wyeth’s work endures because he portrayed his subjects naturally, interlocked in a dance between chaos and order, always on the brink of both, in an upward struggle toward clarity.
“I want my impulsiveness, my chaos to have meaning. I want the primitive effect when you bring abstraction and the real together,” Wyeth said in a 1965 interview with LIFE magazine. “People like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock and de Kooning sometimes do get amazing qualities that give me a kick in the tail to really let go. But I think a painting is undigested if you leave it in the state of just chaos. I like that first, wild impulse to be there, underneath, but pulled back into clarity.”
For Wyeth, pulling chaos back into clarity meant painting the commonplace—a boy running down a hill, a boat discarded in a hayloft, the river behind his house—in a way that would both appeal and mystify his viewers. Part of the reason why “Christina’s World” continues to draw crowds at MoMA (even though the museum has tucked it away behind an escalator) is that although each blade of grass is painted in excruciating detail, Anna Christina Olson’s crippled presence on the hill seems out of place. She’s all alone, turned away from the viewer and straining toward the house for some unknowable reason.
“Christina’s World” may be a mystery to viewers at the gallery, but to Wyeth, it was portrait of the Olson family history. Christina isn’t crawling away from the viewer; she’s turning away from the family cemetery. The house to which she looks was originally built in the seventeenth century and its frame supports centuries of family history. Wyeth would often feature this house in other paintings, most famously “Wind from the Sea,” which the National Gallery has in its permanent collection.
In his nearly seventy-year career, Wyeth became deeply attached to his subjects and only painted people and places from his hometown in Pennsylvania or at his summer home in Maine. Just several farms, friends, and boats were the sole subjects of Wyeth’s work. According to his biographer, Richard Meryman, Wyeth’s father had advised the artist to choose only a few subjects, and become so familiar with them that every time he painted, he would be putting himself on the canvas.
This commitment to a narrow range of subjects made Wyeth unique and precluded him from critical popularity during life. It was not fashionable to find order in everyday life when most of the world was aroused by the sexual revolution or terrified by the imminent threat of nuclear war. Wyeth’s seemingly idyllic scenes of country life were dismissed as irrelevant. Even when he branched out and released a series of highly publicized nudes nicknamed “The Helga Pictures,” he was criticized for attempting the sensual without including the pornographic. When he died, The Guardian sneered that his art “belongs in retired Republican politicians’ homes, and the boardrooms of bankrupt banks.”
Scorn, however, doesn’t last, at least in Wyeth’s case. Most of Wyeth’s detractors are dying out, and the quality of his work endures. As the world spins into chaos—and it always is—paintings like “Christina’s World” are reminders that even the wild has its own order. And seeing that is clarity.
Image: MoMA cover, NEA