Andrew Wyeth, one of the most popular and revered American artists of the 20th century, died at his home near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Friday at the age of 91. His realistic paintings had a special appeal even to those who normally scorn art museums and never read art criticism. In an era that produced a myriad of artistic styles, from abstract expressionism to minimalist art, Wyeth never wavered from his devotion to realism... a realism that many followers tried to imitate but none could duplicate.
Wyeth said he painted "basic truths."
"Painting objects that mean a lot to me, that have an emotional feeling, and I have the deepest love for a hill or a tree as I have for a human being, sometimes more," he says.
His skill as an artist was demonstrated at an early age. His father, N.C. Wyeth, was a famous illustrator of children's books. Andrew, the youngest of five children, blossomed under his father's guidance and soon developed his own distinctive style. His formal education ended at age 16 when he became an apprentice in his father's studio. Three years later, Andrew had his first one-man show at a New York gallery. It was an instant success.
Not only did Wyeth share a craft with his father, but in a 2004 VOA documentary, he recalled they also shared a friendship.
"He was one of a very close - not only a wonderful father, but a very close friend to me - and we had great talks right up to the week before he died about painting and things. And he was, oh, it was a great loss to me. In fact, I think I began to see slightly the light after his death. It made me see things much clearer, what I wanted to do. Sometimes you need a jolt to make you see clearly."
His father's death in a car crash in 1945 came as a major blow to Wyeth. He painted "Winter, 1946," to express his feelings about death, and his subsequent work became darker and more intense.
On the surface, an Andrew Wyeth painting seems simplistic. The subject matter is obvious: a rural landscape, a rustic barn, a lonely seashore, a farmer's likeness. In "Christina's World," a crippled young woman pulls herself up a grassy hill toward a weather-beaten house. But beneath the surface, in the soul of the painting, there is an undercurrent of emotion, a mood implied. It could be joy or sorrow, or a haunting, fleeting expression of fear and foreboding. The ability to capture a moment of subtle emotion in everyday images is a talent that few artists other than Wyeth have been able to achieve.
His son Jamie, also an artist, recognized that.
"I think there's a misconception about Andrew Wyeth, that he's this bucolic painter of fields and barns and... when, in fact, his work is very edgy and very kind of undercurrents of menace and whatnot, which I love in his work," Jamie says.
Many American art critics deplored Wyeth's adherence to realism and said he was out of touch with the primary artistic trends of his time - the non-representational compositions of the abstract expressionists. But Wyeth's friend and biographer Richard Meryman predicted that eventually the U.S. art establishment would acknowledge his greatness.
"Even his detractors, as far as I can tell, believe that he has a solid place in the history of American art," he says. "After time, the major paintings will surface. And there will be a reassessment, a rediscovery of Andrew Wyeth. And he is very much in the tradition of the great American painters, [Thomas] Eakins, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper. He is right in line with those men."
The general public certainly recognized his talent, making Wyeth one of the most popular artists of the 20th century, whose works sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1950, Time Magazine named him one of the nation's greatest artists, and in 1963, he became the first painter to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was elected to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the Soviet Academy of the Arts and Britain's Royal Academy. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988, and in 2007 - at the age of 90 - he was honored with the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush.
With material and actualities from TV feature by Chu Xiao, Song Lin, and Tian Yuan, Shirley Shanahan and Mike Joyce