His Own Man

The Art of Jamie Wyeth

by Stephen May

Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946) has been a presence in the American art world since adolescence, admired for his portraits, landscapes and animals. Although he has set an independent course in his career, he is inevitably compared to his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth (1882–1945), the great illustrator, and his father, Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009), the iconic twentieth-century artist. He has often been exhibited together with them or in shows focusing on specific themes.

Recent photograph of Jamie Wyeth,<br/>PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT HEWITT

In this context, “Jamie Wyeth,” a retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA Boston), offered an opportunity to consider the artist on his own. Some 100 artworks, including oil paintings, works on paper, illustrations and mixed media assemblages, document the evolution of his oeuvre. It is a rewarding display of independence, manifested with technical skill, fertile imagination, visionary realism and occasionally whimsical humor. As MFA Boston director Malcolm Rogers observed, the exhibition and catalogue “offer an opportunity to consider Jamie Wyeth on his own terms, tracing the arc of the artist’s development from his earliest drawings through to his most recent compositions.”1

 

Early Years

 

James Browning Wyeth was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and raised in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. His mother, Betsy (James) Wyeth, was her husband’s muse and archivist. Jamie’s older brother, Nicholas, is an art dealer. Jamie grew up immersed in the works of his father and grandfather, and of two aunts, Carolyn Wyeth and Henriette (Wyeth) Hurd, and two uncles, Peter Hurd and John McCoy—all accomplished painters. Having left public school after the sixth grade, he was homeschooled, with training in the afternoon by Carolyn Wyeth in his grandfather’s studio. An exacting, erratic character, Carolyn drilled her nephew in art fundamentals. He also benefited from the advice and example of his father, his closest friend and mentor, just as Andrew had learned from N.C.’s instruction and encouragement. Jamie routinely spent eight hours a day studying, sketching and painting the world around him.

By age twenty, Jamie had a solo exhibition at New York’s Knoedler Gallery, and his paintings were in museums and private collections. Early on, he employed his wide-ranging imagination in creating a hybrid form of realism that is hard to categorize. He cites as inspirations Sandro Botticelli, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins and Rockwell Kent, and among those who have not inspired him Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper.2

 

Styles and Sources

 

Wyeth has lived through times of flux in the art world, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, to a revival of the New Realism, to today’s global pluralism. While well aware of these changes, he has consciously avoided association with trends or movements. Rather, he has followed his own drummer, drawing on a rich diversity of people, landscapes, animals and places. In seeking to convey the beauty, wonder and frequently enigmatic qualities of the places he knows, he continues to unlock the universal truths of man and nature.

Wyeth’s place within the tradition of realism is a matter of conjecture. Like his artistic forebears, he enjoys wide recognition, but he is too traditional and too individualistic to be assigned to any contemporary group.3

Wyeth has rooted his art in the two regions he has occupied for years: the Brandywine Valley (Chadds Ford) and midcoast Maine islands (Monhegan and Southern). These quite different natural worlds challenge his aesthetic sensibilities and inspire his creativity. He has generally avoided the celebrity culture of recent years, choosing instead to revisit people, places and animals around these home bases. To some extent, he carries on the Brandywine tradition of painting that was launched by the Father of American Illustration, Howard Pyle, and his star pupil, N.C. Wyeth, and continued by Andrew. “The Brandywine heritage,” says art historian David Houston, “is characterized by strong narrative quality and a closely observed realism, grounded in a strong sense of place, and animated by an unwavering faith in the transformational power of the artist’s imagination.”4 Unfortunately, harsh criticisms of Andrew’s work from some quarters have clouded Jamie’s place in American art history.5

 

Portraiture

 

<i>Draft Age</i>, 1965<br/>BRANDYWINE RIVER MUSEUM, CHADDS FORD, PENNSYLVANIA

Jamie Wyeth is a superb, under-recognized portraitist. Three of his finest likenesses, painted when he was in his late teens, are quite different in feeling, but each conveys the conviction of authenticity. In a profoundly insightful likeness of an aging hermit, Portrait of Shorty (1963), the subject is posed seated on a richly patterned yellow silk brocade chair that contrasts sharply with his careworn face, mustache, heavy stubble and grimy sleeveless undershirt. This remarkable debut portrait for the seventeen-year-old artist has been cited as a “coming of age” likeness comparable to the twenty-seven-year-old Copley’s iconic A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765).6

That same year, in his first formal commission, Wyeth stirred controversy with his unflinching head-on Portrait of Helen Taussig, depicting the greatly admired pediatric cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Medical School. The artist, fascinated by the doctor’s piercing blue eyes that stared at him intently throughout posing sessions, replicated them as a reflection of her strong intellect. When the portrait was unveiled at her retirement party, friends and colleagues were aghast, likening the portrait to that of an old witch. One suspects that many of them would acknowledge today that Wyeth got her just about right. A much more positive reaction greeted Draft Age (1965), Wyeth’s portrayal of his buddy, Jimmy Lynch, who showed up to pose wearing a black leather jacket and sunglasses. His cocky, rebellious stance suggested he might resist the draft. The likeness endures as a symbol of the tumultuous Vietnam era; Lynch received his draft notice the day his portrait was completed.

Wyeth’s 1965, Eakins-like portrait of his good friend, the ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein, is unconventionally painted from the back, focusing on his strong right profile. The composition recalls the Wyeth family tradition of paintings from unusual perspectives. Kirstein introduced the young painter to the New York art world, facilitated Wyeth’s study of anatomy at a New York morgue and pronounced him the “finest American portrait painter since the death of John Singer Sargent.”7

Shortly after that, Wyeth accepted an opportunity to paint a posthumous portrait of President John F. Kennedy. In line with his penchant for familiarizing himself with the subject’s appearance, the artist reviewed photographs, watched films, talked with people who knew the president and studied firsthand the mannerisms of his brothers Robert and Edward. Out of the numerous resulting sketches came the finest of the many likenesses of the martyred president, captured in a moment of anguished indecision—such as the Cuban missile crisis—his bloodshot eyes staring uneasily off into space.8

These early portraits were painted in a cramped space at one end of a large room in his father’s studio, an old schoolhouse just down the hill from N.C. Wyeth’s place in Chadds Ford. Then as now, the room was filled with paintings and artifacts ranging from fencing equipment and swords to toy soldiers and World War I military uniforms. Nearby is a human skeleton. Jamie’s “studio” was just outside his father’s rather spartan painting room, containing a fireplace, easel, mirror, paints, brushes, palettes, a large window and sketches strewn across the floor.9

<i>Portrait of Shorty</i>, 1963<br/>COLLECTION OF ANDREW AND BETSY WYETH

Before he moved to his own farm and studio near Chadds Ford, Jamie executed a moving portrait of his father, painted in 1969, when Andrew Wyeth was fifty-two. The artist’s head and the buttons on his coat appear out of a black background, replete with greying hair and a slightly fleshy, lined face, staring off into the distance. It is a restrained but accurate and affectionate likeness.

In 1968, Jamie married Phyllis Mills, who grew up in the hunt country around Middleburg, Virginia. She had worked in the Kennedy White House and was disabled in an automobile accident before the wedding. She has been a constant muse, model and supporter of her husband’s career, much admired for her pluck and good nature as she maneuvers about in her scooter or wheelchair.

 

Warhol's World

 

In the 1970s, intrigued by the art and personality of Andy Warhol, Wyeth spent time with the Pop Art star at The Factory in Manhattan, where Warhol works were created and parties went on around the clock. The two shared many interests—shopping for Americana, antiques and taxidermy specimens, among others—and spent hours talking about popular culture and art-making. They painted and exchanged each other’s portraits; Warhol’s of Wyeth in profile depicting him as a sort of matinee idol, and Wyeth’s of Warhol, a highly realistic head-on pose of a pasty-faced and pimpled figure with an ill-fitting wig and holding his beloved dachshund. Ever disdainful of both Warhol and Wyeth’s work, the New York press pounced on the opportunity to critique the likenesses. The New York Times’ acerbic art critic Hilton Kramer called the two portraits a male version of Beauty and the Beast.10 Around this time, Wyeth painted the bodybuilder and future movie and political star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Magnifying the imposing musculature of his subject, Wyeth closed in as Schwarzenegger flexed his enormous muscles. The classic bodybuilder pose is as close as Wyeth has come to a Pop Art work.

Wyeth spent months sketching the celebrated ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, recording his body (of which the Soviet defector was enormously proud) and image in performances from both sides of the footlights. Impressed by the dancer’s physicality and force-of-nature personality, Wyeth used calipers to measure parts of Nureyev’s anatomy. His efforts to convey Nureyev as a performer constitute some of the most delicate works in his oeuvre—using graphite, charcoal, watercolor and gouache on toned paper. Unsatisfied, however, he put the work aside and returned to the subject posthumously in 2001. (The dancer died in 1993.) The series of works shows Nureyev on stage striking dynamic poses against a bright yellow background and culminates in a large work showing ballerinas weeping over his dead body. Wyeth finally did justice to his dynamic, complex and challenging friend.

 

Back to His Roots

 

 

<i>Kleberg</i>, 1984<br>TERRA FOUNDATION FOR AMERICAN ART, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Much as he enjoyed the heady art world of New York and the rewards of celebrity there, Wyeth never lost sight of his roots. After spending much time in the city in the ‘70s, he returned to familiar family haunts in the Brandywine Valley (at Point Lookout Farm near Chadds Ford) and mid-coastal Maine. He now maintains homes/studios on Monhegan Island, where he bought the house Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) constructed for his mother, and Southern Island off Tenants Harbor, where he lives much of the year in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters and works in an airy, adjacent studio. These are the worlds from which Wyeth draws inspiration for a broad range of subjects, interpreted in idiosyncratic ways that reflect his distance from contemporary trends. In recent years, Wyeth, who is gregarious and resembles his hearty grandfather, has served as an eloquent spokesman for the family at public events.11

At his farm studio, Wyeth continued to build on remarkable works he had previously created, as far back as age thirteen, which are akin to his father’s art. Jamie’s ambivalence about his artistic identity is reflected in Pumpkinhead— Self-Portrait (1972), showing him standing in a field with a surreal carved jack-o-lantern in place of his head.12 More straightforward are a series of paintings of his wife, Phyllis, once a champion equestrian, driving a team of horses through lush green landscapes around Chadds Ford. The standout is the striking Connemara (1987), an up-close view from behind the pony cart as Phyllis guides two white horses on a woodsy carriage trail.

Wyeth has painted with relish structures, trees, fields and people in and around his farm, but in the future he may be best remembered for depictions of animals and birds, which he studies, knows and depicts with accuracy and affection. Devoting as much time to these portraits as to human likenesses, including giving them distinct personalities, he has achieved an intimacy, appeal and gravitas unmatched among contemporary artists. A highlight is Portrait of Pig (1970), a nearly life-size oil showing Den-Den, his massive hog, in such minute detail that its expression and bristles are palpable. Equally striking is Wyeth’s Portrait of a Lady (1968), in which the intense gaze of a ewe tends to establish a connection to human viewers.

Before working with Warhol, Wyeth painted animals in their natural settings, but soon after that encounter, his chickens and geese appeared in commercial cardboard boxes with labels such as “Cornflakes” and “Sears Motor Oil.” Even more memorable is Wyeth’s portrait of his golden Labrador retriever, Kleberg, a 1984 oil for which the artist painted a black circle around one eye (à la the mascot in The Little Rascals movies) and had him sit next to a large golden beehive.13

 

Maine

 

Compared to Pennsylvania, with its rolling hills and farmlands, the rockbound coast of Maine offers Wyeth raw, edgy and animated subjects that embody the ever-present power of nature.14 Arguably the finest of Wyeth’s animal portraits is set high on a promontory on Manana, the islet off Monhegan Island. The Islander (1975) shows the sole islet resident, a wild ram posed in profile regally surveying his kingdom, in this case the land and sea below him. It is a compelling image. Sea Star (1985), a close-up of a seagull scavenging on a beach among starfish, shells, pebbles and sand, is embellished with a frame of glued-on shells arrayed in mosaic-like patterns that make for an immersive composition.

Wyeth appears to be carrying on the family tradition of whimsical paintings in The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine (2007). While the jack-o-lanterns swirling in the air are surreal in effect, the composition actually recalls a post-Halloween Monhegan ritual of tossing carved pumpkins into the sea. The handling of the roiling blue-green sea and rocky grey coastline is masterful.

Some of Wyeth’s most powerful recent paintings are action-filled portraits of seagulls, depicting their physicality in often gory detail, based on years of observed behavior. He is especially adept at conveying actions and characteristics of gulls in isolation or within small groups. Art historian Richard McLanathan observed: “No one has ever better expressed the orneriness, the reptilian rapacity, and the superb adaptation to their environment of his seagulls, with their cold, baleful eyes.”15

Inspired by the work of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, between 2005 and 2008, Wyeth painted an exceptional series of paintings, The Seven Deadly Sins, using expressive images of seagulls enacting the traditional vices. In a flurry of activity, Wyeth shows gulls biting, swallowing, fending off competitors and generally scrapping in compositions that illustrate Anger, Lust, Gluttony, Pride, Sloth, Greed and Envy. Equally compelling is his enormous close-up, Raven (1980)—a 60-by-72-inch showstopper that immortalizes the bird’s beak, eye, talons and feathers.

 

Recent Work

 

Inspired by a recurring dream sequence since his father’s death in 2009, Wyeth has painted a series of views of raging waters at the Headlands of Monhegan as viewed by his various mentors. In Sea Watchers, Warhol and Homer look on in the background as Wyeth’s father and grandfather—dressed in foul-weather gear—stand on rocks gazing at the roiling sea. In The Sea Watched, Homer has disappeared; only Warhol remains behind, staring at N.C. and Andrew perched above turbulent water. A Recurring Dream shows only his father and grandfather viewing the roaring seascape at night. Jamie Wyeth effectively conveys the inexorable power and changing colors of the water and nostalgic views of his mentors with bravura brushwork.16

<i>The Sea Watched</i>, 2009<br/>PRIVATE COLLECTION

 

Still going strong in his late sixties, Wyeth continues, in his own way, the great Wyeth painting tradition. This is reflected in Meteor Shower (1993), which depicts a mysterious, beaked scarecrow wearing a vintage military tunic, standing on Wyeth’s Southern Island, silhouetted against the small, moonlit body of water and the town of Tenants Harbor. The jacket was used by Howard Pyle, who passed it on to N.C. Wyeth, who utilized it and gave it to Andrew, who used it, and now Jamie has featured it in a grand canvas.

Given his lively imagination, superb painting and compositional skills, and interest in his family’s artistic traditions, we can look for continued provocative and insightful work in the days ahead from this latest generation of Wyeth artists. Conservator and perceptive Wyeth expert Joyce Hill Stoner writes: “Jamie Wyeth lives on his own terms with a healthy respect for his heritage and a unique ability to translate acute observations into a spectrum of visual experiences.” She admires his “impressive range of styles from the laser-like intensity of Portrait of Shorty to the archetypal but iconic encrusted image of an animal friend in Portrait of Pig to...eerie dreamscape[s].”17

Notes

1. Elliot Bostwick Davis, Jamie Wyeth (Boston: MFA Publications, 2014), 7. The show was curated by Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas at the MFA, Boston. She also wrote the excellent exhibition catalogue, which includes an essay by David Houston, Executive Director of the Bo Bartlett Center, Columbus State University, Columbus, Georgia. After Boston, the exhibition tours to the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the San Antonio Museum of Art and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. The Denver Art Museum will present a different exhibition, “Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio,” from November 8, 2015 through February 7, 2016.

2. Ibid., 10. In his “Interview” with then Farnsworth Art Museum director Christopher Crosman, Wyeth singled out Eakins and Degas (booklet for “Jamie Wyeth’s Islands,” 1993, 2). Most recently, Wyeth has spoken warmly about the art of Winslow Homer.

3. David Houston has observed that the younger Wyeth “occupies a unique position within the revival of realism; he is an artist working in an unbroken line of realist painters that extends back to the nineteenth century, but he also continues to evolve a distinctive strain of traditional American realist painting today. As a member of the Wyeth clan, he remains a well-known but elusive artist, one whose skill continues to dazzle and whose diversity of subjects and styles can also mystify.” “Jamie Wyeth and Recent American Realism,” in Davis, 13.

4. Ibid.

5. Responding to criticism of his work and his father’s, Jamie observes: “The killer, the final nail in the coffin, with our work is its general popularity—that it’s acceptable to a wider audience. And that, in most circles, is the kiss of death. They say, ‘It’s too acces­sible. Art should inaccessible.’ I don’t know about my own work, but I don’t think my father’s work is very accessible. It is on one level….[but] look a little deeper; it’ll blow your socks off.” See Crosman interview in Davis.

6. Davis, 31.

7. Lincoln Kirstein, foreword to James Wyeth Paintings, ex. cat., Knoedler and Co. (New York: M. Knoedler, 1966), n.p. See also art historian Theodore Stebbins’ comments in James Wyeth: Recent Paintings (New York: Coe Kerr Gallery, 1974), n.p., where he observed that “James Wyeth is a genuine master of the portrait…at twenty-eight he has reached artistic maturity.”

8. Portrait of John F. Kennedy was acquired last year by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

9. Today, the Andrew Wyeth studio, along with N.C. Wyeth’s house and studio, are main­tained by the nearby Brandywine River Museum and open to the public.

10. Hilton Kramer, “Art: Warhol Meets Wyeth,” New York Times (June 4, 1976), 66. In defense of his realism, Wyeth observed of Warhol: “Well, he wasn’t pretty to look at, you know, which fascinated me.” Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 51, quoted in Davis, 69.

11. Wyeth traveled to Moscow in 1997, when he accompanied “An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art,” a major exhibition of 117 works by him, his father and grandfather. Over the years, Wyeth has illustrated a few books, notably The Stray (New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1979), written by his mother, Betsy. Set in Chadds Ford, his pen-and-ink illustrations of dogs, foxes, pigs, a buzzard and a seagull, all of whom resemble real local residents, add to the book’s appeal. The elegant lines and whimsical situations in Wyeth’s drawings closely resemble his grandfather’s pen-and-ink illustra­tions for Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1918). By contrast, Wyeth’s illustrations for Elizabeth Seabrook’s Cabbages and Kings (New York: Viking, 1997) are lush, colorful paintings that augment the endearing story of the friendship in Farmer John’s garden between Albert, an asparagus, and Herman, a cabbage. Barbara Walsh’s Sammy in the Sky (Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2011), about the loss of a beloved dog, is enhanced by Wyeth’s illustrations.

12. Wyeth submitted Pumpkinhead as his required painting for membership in the National Academy of Design. After it was rejected, he created a half-length self-portrait, nude from the waist up, which secured his membership at the tender age of twenty-three.

13. In a brochure for “James Wyeth: Recent Works” (1974), at New York’s Coe Kerr Gallery, its president, R. Frederick Woolworth, singled out Kleberg as demonstrating Wyeth’s “powerful objectivity and…peculiar intimacy which exemplifies his unity of vision.” Woolworth noted that “The two ‘sitters,’ the dog and beehive, share the artist’s atten­tion equally. Both are painted in a rich bravura style which heightens the intensity of their presence.”

14. Wyeth’s paintings of a wild teenager, Orca Bates, born and raised on the islet of Manana adjacent to Monhegan Island, show him dressed in a trim jacket in front of a row of harpoons and other whaling equipment, and again in a T-shirt confidently cradling a seagull—a notoriously aggressive bird prone to nipping at humans. Most memo­rably, Orca posed nude seated in profile in front of an elongated whale jaw with large, pointed teeth.

15. See Crossman interview quoted in Davis, 11. From Richard McLanathan’s introductory essay in a brochure for “Jamie Wyeth on Monhegan,” a folio of paintings organized and published by the Island Institute, Rockland, Maine in 1991, n.p. Wyeth says seagulls are “wonderful birds! I love seagulls. But they’re mean….They’re really killers….I hope I’m giving a sense of that in my paintings….Because seagulls can be kind of a tourist attraction like plastic lawn ornaments here in Maine.”

16. Wyeth has painted Rockwell Kent, posed with brushes and palette, against a snowy Monhegan background. Wyeth’s painting Kent House (1972) frames the intrepid struc­ture beyond a stretch of jagged rocks and under a clear blue sky. Kent’s own fully furnished house and nearby studio are preserved by the James Fitzgerald Legacy and open to the public in the summer.

17. Joyce Hill Stoner, “Jamie Wyeth: Proteus in Paint,” in Articles and Essays on American Art (Arizona: Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., 2010), n.p.

 

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2015, Volume 33, Number 2