All posts in “Betsy Wyeth”

Wyeth’s Cast of Characters: Christina Olson

One day I came in and saw [Christina] on the back door step in the late afternoon. She had finished all her work in the kitchen and there she was sitting quietly, with a far-off look to the sea. At the time, I thought she looked like a wounded seagull with her bony arms, slightly long hair back over her shoulder, and strange shadows of her cast on the side of the weathered door, which had this white porcelain knob on it. ―Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth met Christina Olson through his wife Betsy and first painted her in 1947. He would paint Christina every summer in Cushing, Maine for the next 20 years until her death in January, 1968. As Betsy explains it, “The key to the Olson pictures is Andy’s relationship with Christina—absolutely at ease with him.” Christina Olson, a New-England native, refused a wheelchair for much of her life, despite being without the use of her legs. Rather, she used her upper body to pull herself through the fields and house where she lived and worked. Her tenacity and intelligence captivated Andrew Wyeth and their friendship blossomed easily.

 

I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes. I see no reason for painting but that. If I have anything to offer, it is my emotional contact with the place where I live and the people I do. – Andrew Wyeth

Even in death, Andrew continued to draw inspiration from Christina through her house and the objects that had defined her. Wyeth considered this painting of the two entrances to her home a double portrait of the siblings, Alvaro and Christina Olson. When first introduced to the Olson siblings, Andrew was initially taken with Alvaro and painted his portrait before he become focused on the indomitable Christina. Alvaro died on Christmas night, 1967, and Christina, without him, died only weeks later. The house and remnants left abandoned in their wake struck Wyeth as symbolic of the lives they lived—the shadowy Alvaro, who only posed for Wyeth once and remained always in the background as Wyeth painted in the Olson house; and, by contrast, the brilliant, captivating Christina.

 

The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless . . . limited physically but by no means spiritually. – Andrew Wyeth

Anna Christina is Wyeth’s last portrait of Christina Olson. She died only months after the tempera was completed. The trusting relationship of artist and model is evident: Christina confronts the artist and the viewer completely unselfconsciously, and Wyeth returns the favor with unflinching honesty and respect. “A powerful face with a great deal of fortitude. The Quality of a Medici head,” Wyeth described his friend. He painted Christina against an open doorway filled by a milky gray rectangle of fog that had enshrouded the house for weeks.

 

This drybrush is intended to be a portrait of the Olson house both outside and inside. Outside is total fragility. Inside is full of secrets. There’s Christina sitting in the kitchen, on the left, and everything’s in there—the stove, the geraniums, the buckets, and the trash. I had to overdo it here and reveal all the secrets. I like to paint in places that are not too nice. ― Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth saw the world around him resounding with hidden meaning. Occasionally considered a magical realist for his emphasis on the inner life of objects such as the stove or the bucket in this painting, Wyeth was certainly a storyteller. His paintings can be seen as stills in a moving image—the story of Christina’s Olson’s life surrounding her and continuing right outside the open door of her kitchen.

 

This curtain that had been lying there stale for year began slowly to rise, and the birds crocheted on it began to move. My hair about stood on end. – Andrew Wyeth

Christina Olson was a muse for Andrew Wyeth that helped launch his career. As a subject she is forever seated due to the degenerative disease that made her a paraplegic, but in Wyeth’s paintings, the figure of Christina stands out, singular and strong in the stories of Wyeth’s characters. See Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect before it closes, January 15.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

Images: Christina Olson, 1947, Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917–2009, tempera on hardboard panel, 33 x 25 in., Myron Kunin Collection of American Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota, © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artist Rights Society (ARS). Alvaro and Christina, 1968, Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917–2009, watercolor on paper, 22 ½ x 28 ¾ in., Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, Museum Purchase, 1969, © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artist Rights Society. Installation views of Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect at Seattle Art Museum, 2017. Photos by Natali Wiseman.

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NC Wyeth

Wyeth’s Cast of Characters: N.C. Wyeth

“He’d look at me like a Brahman bull when he walked in the door to criticize my work, and if he was glowering, I braced myself. In a few incisive words he’d bit right at some puny characteristics in my nature.”
– Andrew Wyeth

This unfinished sketch is the only portrait Andrew Wyeth ever made of his father, an imposing figure in the story of Andrew’s life. Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth was an accomplished illustrator with strong opinions. At 19 Andrew made this pencil portrait. The challenge of drawing the man who was not just father but also Andrew’s teacher and toughest critic must have been daunting. Though small in size, the portrait nevertheless conveys a looming figure. In life, N.C. Wyeth was domineering; in death, he haunted his painter son to the end of his life. Wyeth always regretted that he never painted his famous father before the man’s tragic death in 1945.

“The boy was me at a loss really. His hand, drifting in the air, was my hand almost groping, my free soul.”
– Andrew Wyeth

Throughout Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, the landscape of his neighbors’ farm appears repeatedly. Kuerner’s Hill rears up towards the viewer on occasion and, on others, slopes gradually toward the horizon. At the bottom of this hill are the train tracks where N.C. Wyeth was killed by an oncoming train. A few months later Andrew painted Allan Lynch, the boy who found N.C. Wyeth’s body, running down Kuerner’s Hill. Andrew Wyeth described the sensation of painting Kuerner’s Hill in Winter 1946 by saying that he could almost hear his father breathe. Andrew’s inspiration for the painting came from an afternoon of playing with Allan on Kuerner’s Hill, and yet the ominous and somber tone of the painting indicates the presence of his father in the landscape.

Installation view of Brown Swiss

“A hump in the earth. Hell—a nice shape, but it reminds you of your father. Where he’s buried.”
– Andrew Wyeth

One November afternoon as he climbed Kuerner’s Hill, Wyeth looked over his shoulder and saw the Kuerner house mirrored, upside down, in the pond below. He worked in vain on a tempera that might recreate that vision. Betsy Wyeth criticized Andrew’s art process for being so meticulous and unable to take advantage of chance effect. Working on this painting, Andrew began changing this when he threw a watery mix of yellow-brown ochre and red-brown sienna tempera across the panel. Never able to escape the internalized critic of his father, you can see the shadow of Kuerner’s Hill cast across the middle of the painting—the shadow of death. This scene would not appear this way in reality because the lake would not be visible in shadow. Here Kuerner’s Hill becomes emblematic of the mournful loss of his father.

Installation view of Snow Hill

“A hump like a snow-hill”
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

There is a lot going on in this painting but in the story Andrew Wyeth tells us about his father, this painting is unique for one small detail. This is the only painting that depicts the train tracks at the bottom of Kuerner’s Hill where N.C. Wyeth died. Titled from a quote taken from Moby Dick about the great white whale, once again Kuerner’s Hill, now covered in snow, becomes a metaphor for Andrew Wyeth’s own nemesis, his father N.C. Wyeth.

See Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, on view at SAM through January 15 and learn more about the characters and narratives that dominate the life and art of Andrew Wyeth.

—Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist and Social Media Manager

Images: Installation views of Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect at Seattle Art Museum, 2017, photos: Natali Wiseman.
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Ides of March by Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth’s Dog Life

“You know, dogs are the damnedest thing. They just take over the house.”
– Andrew Wyeth

Dig into the life and paintings of Andrew Wyeth and you’ll start to notice that there are dogs all over the place. As a dog owner, it seems Wyeth was as susceptible as anyone to sharing images of his favorite mutts—man’s best friend often makes an appearance in Wyeth’s paintings. Visit Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect and keep your eye out in the galleries for K-9 companions, Rattler, Nell Gwyn, or neighborhood hounds. So how did Wyeth’s love for his four-legged friends influence his artwork?

Old faithful isn’t just a geyser. Ides of March, above, shows Wyeth’s dog lying in front of the cooking fireplace in the Wyeth’s old home. Is this an idyllic domestic dog scene or a metaphor for the murder of Julius Caesar? Why not both? The title helps us see, perhaps, the detailed antique iron fireplace implements as spears and an emperor’s crown, its wearer dead and gone, his pyre or tomb protected by a loyal dog.

 

Installation view of Andrew Wyeth in Retrospect at Seattle Art Museum

These poor pups! The occupant of this decrepit mill kept starving coon dogs tied up outside the old granary. We never promised cute-overload here, but the good news is that eventually Betsy Wyeth purchased the historic mill property and restored it as a new home for the Wyeths. We hope these dogs found better homes and treatment too.

 

Installation view of Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect at Seattle Art Museum

Is this guard dog asleep on the job? Wyeth’s dog, Nell Gwyn, sleeps on a bag: does the bag contain a secret? Does the dog guard the secret? Betsy imagined Andrew would move his studio into the mill house she renovated for them, but he refused. Wyeth was living a double life at the time this painting was made—painting a woman, Helga Testorf, in secret. This dog was named for the mistress of Charles II, which probably amused the artist since he admitted that the painting was an extension of his studies of a sleeping Helga.

 

Adam (study)

This study for his painting, Adam, does not include any dogs, so what’s it doing in this blog post about Andrew Wyeth’s dogs? Look closely. Moving across the sketch you can see paw prints. Perhaps Andrew Wyeth left this sketch on the floor of his studio to reference while producing the final painting and one of his dogs wandered in, without care for the artist at work—what does a dog care for fine art? Snoopy might have an opinion on that.

 

Obviously, Charles Schulz was a fan.

 

 

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

Images: Ides of March, 1974, Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917–2009, tempera on hardboard panel, 24 ½ x 41 ½ in., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Fowler, © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artist Rights Society (ARS). Raccoon, 1958, Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917– 2009. tempera on hardboard panel 48 × 48 in. Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Acquisition in memory of Nancy Hanks made possible by David Rockefeller, Laurance S. Rockefeller, Mimi Haskell, and the Pew Memorial Trust. Installation views of Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect at Seattle Art Museum, 2017, photos by Natali Wiseman.
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Conserving and Conversing: Andrew Wyeth

I had the amazing privilege of serving as Andrew Wyeth’s conservator for the last 12 years of his life. Conservators dream about being able to speak with the artists and ask them questions while making decisions about treating their works. (When I worked as senior conservator for the treatment of Whistler’s Peacock Room 1988–1992, we joked about how wonderful it would be to be able to have a séance in order to ask Whistler questions such as “just how shiny do you want the final varnish to be?”) And there Andrew Wyeth would be, live and in person, visiting my paintings conservation studio at Winterthur just about once a month, when I was treating one of his works or works by artists he especially admired, including Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth.

He would sometimes give instructions that I might not have intuited without him present: “inpaint this scratch (from handling) but don’t inpaint this other scratch; it makes the stone wall look older and rougher.” The egg medium in his tempera paint sometimes produces a white efflorescence that looks a bit like spray Christmas snow. He would ask me to LEAVE this white powdery substance on areas of snow in his winter landscapes, but to remove it where it took away the “snap” of the brown or black tree trunks. If a part of a gessoed panel had gotten wet and a few areas had flaked away, we would work out together how to inpaint the missing areas after I carried out consolidation and filling; twice we did this jointly.

Additionally I would be invited to cocktails at the Mill with Betsy and Andrew Wyeth; I typed extensive notes each night when I got back to my computer and have about two linear feet of notebooks detailing conversation topics, comments they’d make, and challenging questions they would ask all visitors; cocktails beside the Wyeths’ fireplace was never relaxing. (The pointy fireplace tongs, etc. give you a hint.) Often Andrew Wyeth would be “unveiling” a new tempera and the only faux pas would be NOT to have a lot to say—what does this remind you of? “Princess Diana in the tunnel where she died?” (That was Sparks.) While looking at a new tempera you had to produce a stream-of-consciousness monologue featuring your personal reactions and meaningful associations. Or you might hear Andrew in front of The Carry: “THIS calm area of water represents me doing temperas, but THIS turbulent water represents my ‘wild side’—doing watercolors.” For the same painting, Betsy said, “THIS turbulent water is me during the Helga crisis, but this calm area is after I got over the Helga crisis!” Andrew then said, “DID YOU get over the Helga crisis?” Dead silence in the room. I gave a cheery hostess-type laugh and changed the subject quickly to help retrieve equanimity.

On one occasion when we were walking into the Winterthur Research Building together to look at a treatment in progress, he patted my hair and said, “I like your hair, can I paint you?” (Richard Meryman, Wyeth’s biographer, had told me that he had always regretted saying he was too busy to pose when he was asked.) So I answered immediately: “Send up a flare and I’ll be there!” Wyeth looked puzzled, so I said “Absolutely!” He said, “I’ll call you” and asked what time I came in to work each day, and I said “8:15.”  (I regretted this instantly because I don’t usually come in that early, but now I had to.)

Almost a month went by of sitting by the phone each morning. I’d come up with excuses to drive paintings up Route 100 to consult him. Then on one visit to the Mill, Andy and Betsy told me that Anna Kuerner had just died, and the Kuerner family had given Anna’s pink raincoat to Betsy. It didn’t fit Betsy so she asked me to try it on. It fit perfectly, so Andrew took my hand and said, “come on!” He led me into the Granary building, adjacent to the Mill, and began drawing me. This was May 1999. After a few hours he showed me a beautiful drawing and then said “now I’ll turn it into a watercolor.” I almost involuntarily shouted ”NO” because the drawing was so elegant, and my first thought was not to hide it with paint.

Luckily he ignored me, opened his large metal tool box full of tubed watercolors and began painting. He had me posed looking away, out of a window, which was disappointing for me as a conservator—I wanted to watch him paint. I kept trying to sneak little glimpses without being caught. However, I had heard from others that if things aren’t going well, or you’re too wiggly as a model, he closes the sketchbook and says, “that’s all for now, let’s go to lunch” and that’s that. I’d heard that Helga tried to be so still that she fainted at one point. So I tried to be especially still and cooperative, but he’d keep suggesting we take breaks. There were three half-day posing sessions in all, but he didn’t show me the finished work, and I didn’t know it actually was finished. Other models told me “you never know—either it came to naught, or later you might see it hanging at the Whitney.” But he had it framed and presented it to me for the following Christmas! (It hangs in my studio at the Research Building at Winterthur under a special shade which I pull up ONLY when someone is looking; conservators are very concerned about light levels for watercolors.)

While I was posing it had to be a secret from everyone except Betsy, who had given me the pink coat; I would have occasional teas with Helga, but I wasn’t allowed to tell her. You weren’t welcome in Wyeth World if you couldn’t keep secrets. Other paintings Helga would know about, but then they would be a secret from Betsy. I don’t believe Wyeth ever gave Helga a Helga painting (he did give her drawings he did of her four children). I wondered for a while why he gave me my portrait. I now think that he knew exactly what he was doing. As one artist told a group of conservators, “You are our pediatricians; you take care of our children!” He knew that as a conservator I would now in the future never turn down a request to see about one of his paintings.

Joyce Hill Stoner, Conservator

See Sparks and The Carry in person when you visit Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, on view at Seattle Art Museum through January 15. The exhibition features over 100 of the artist’s finest paintings and drawings and reveals new perspectives on his work and influences.

Images: courtesy of Joyce Hill Stoner
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