Jamie Wyeth's Tableaux Vivants

Miniatures at Play in Creative Space

by Elliot Bostwick Davis, Taylor L. Poulin

Two of the most captivating works of art in “Jamie Wyeth,” a retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2014), were one-sixth-lifesized miniatures, or as the artist calls them, tableaux vivants, French for “living paintings.” Not part of the original selection, they were the last works added to the catalogue checklist in order to offer the greatest breadth of the artist’s creative practice over the course of six decades, the most comprehensive overview to date.1

Jamie Wyeth has long maintained that these intriguing maquettes were created not for display or purchase, but for his personal use, to revive environments from his memory in order to paint subjects and figures now long gone. The Factory Dining Room and La Côte Basque (both 2013) recreate a synthesis of the respective memories Wyeth has of gatherings in Andy Warhol’s dining room at the Factory, as well as meals at the now-shuttered, fabled French restaurant, La Côte Basque. Wyeth describes his paintings as “miniature worlds”;2 he has always been an artist of his immediate environment, representing the people, structures, animals and geography that make up the various

The Factory Dining Room, 2013,  Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection

worlds in which he has lived. He is a microcosmic artist, working from a relatively small space to create works with a much larger meaning, and it is worth examining these tableaux in a similar vein. The role of miniatures in furthering artistic creativity is a topic that expands well beyond the boundaries of this discussion. For Jamie Wyeth, just as one would drop a small pebble into a pool of water to examine the resulting ripples, allow us to  consider the subject in a series of ever-expanding, albeit overlapping concentric rings, beginning with his own oeuvre; then shifting outward to those of his family, the artists he most admires and his contemporaries. With a deeper analysis, Jamie Wyeth’s tableaux stand not as anomalous objects within his creative output, but serve as a springboard into his perception and representation of his world over the course of his career.

This microcosmic quality is not something unique to Jamie; it appears in his father, Andrew Wyeth’s, work as well, and the relationship of both artists to miniature worlds quickly becomes rich and revealing.3 Jamie Wyeth has always been surrounded by miniatures. Over 2,200 miniature soldiers collected by his father line the windowsills of the Andrew Wyeth Studio where Jamie Wyeth lived and set up his first working space as a teenager. Like Jamie, Andrew was an artist of focused, direct experience. He too created miniature scenes (dioramas housed in the library of his home in Chadds Ford), as well as miniature objects for his sister Ann McCoy’s dollhouse, which was large enough for Andrew and Ann to stand inside together, closing off their little world from those around them. It is important to emphasize the difference between the dollhouse as play structure, primarily made for and used by girls, and the environments that Jamie Wyeth creates, which can be considered alongside works by artists who have engaged in miniatures for creative purposes, from Nicolas Poussin in the seventaeenth century to Marcel Duchamp in the twentieth.4 This technical foundation for the role of miniatures is important to Wyeth’s oeuvre, and a philosophical understanding of the genre helps enrich the discussion. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space (1958) is an exploration of inhabited space and the roles various household locations, like the attic, cellar or corner, play in intensifying daydreaming, the author’s locus of creativity.5 His text, which gives special emphasis to small spaces, offers an external guide to analyzing Jamie Wyeth’s fascination with miniatures.

Beginning in childhood when his mother gave him his first doll, a king, Wyeth has since assembled a vast array of miniatures, from one-sixth-life-sized samples originally made for traveling salesmen, to hundreds of miniature soldiers of his own.6 Wyeth’s figures of choice are jointed plastic G.I. Joes, which line his studio barn in vast phalanxes, as well as the occasional Barbie doll. Both types are readily available, mass manufactured beginning in the post-World War II era, and are effectively a modern-day version of the traditional wooden artist’s mannequin. Wyeth removes the heads and hands of his figures, sculpts and paints over the forms to resemble the sitters he wishes to portray, and places them in room-like settings assembled in his barn on Southern Island, Maine, often collaborating with other artisans, costumers and lighting technicians to realize his vision.

The Weathervane, 1959, Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth

The Factory Dining Room depicts a group of Warhol’s acolytes gathered around the table in the dining room at the Factory, their attention directed toward a small television showing a scene from Warhol’s 1977 movie Bad. Warhol sits at the head, in front of a long sideboard covered in Fiestaware, one of his many collecting passions. Next to him is Catherine Guinness, who served as his assistant; at the far end sits Fred Hughes, who handled Warhol’s clients and sales. The man across from Hughes is unnamed; Wyeth refers to him as the “Everyman from the Art World” who would drop in and out of the Factory. Some objects are sourced by dealers, but most elements in the tableaux are handmade, sketched or specified by Wyeth, from the clothing to the taxidermy moose head to the painting on the back wall, a miniature Wyeth oil after David Forrester Wilson’s The Wind (early twentieth century), which Warhol owned.7

La Côte Basque gathers a different group together in a new setting, the plush and opulent interior of the eponymous restaurant. Lincoln Kirstein scowls from the head of a table next to superstar dancer Rudolf Nureyev, Wyeth’s favorite model following his stint in the Factory. They share their table with another unspecified male figure, while in the back corner Truman Capote and Joanne Carson, Capote’s confidante, are engaged in animated conversation. As in The Factory Dining Room, many aspects are handmade, including the oysters on the table, painted atop miniature chips from shells of oysters Wyeth and his wife, Phyllis, consumed and recycled for paths on Southern Island.8

Artists’ use of real objects to spark their imaginations has been a longstanding studio practice firmly established in the Wyeth family by Jamie’s grandfather, Newell Convers Wyeth (1882–1945) under the inspiration of his mentor, Howard Pyle (1853–1911), who advocated not just painting the arm, but “becoming that sleeve.”9 Jamie, who left formal schooling at the end of sixth grade and was homeschooled by a tutor, entered his grandfather’s world every day once he was able to join the art classes taught by his aunt, Carolyn Wyeth, who inherited her father’s studio following his sudden death in 1945. Jamie’s imagination was stoked by the cutlasses and muskets hanging in the studio, along with the numerous N.C. Wyeth paintings stored there. By contrast, when he returned home in those early years, he was struck by the “four bare walls” of Andrew’s studio, where he often found his father painting a dead crow.10

In considering how to present the tableaux vivants within the context of the “Jamie Wyeth” retrospective at the MFA, Boston, which explored the manner through which he has combined a range of media to further his artistic vision throughout his career, Wyeth initially noted that Winslow Homer, an artist he greatly admires, also relied upon dressed, jointed mannequins for his compositions.11 Pursuing Homer’s use of these wooden figures, it is clear that they were an integral part of his studio practice while he was living in the fishing village of Cullercoats, England, during a ten-month stay between 1880 and 1881. Members of the local fishing community, familiar with artists working in their picturesque village, considered Homer to be the fastest painter they had ever witnessed.12 They were unaware that, by the time Homer appeared on the cliffs and beaches, he had already planned his compositions with the smaller-scale mannequins dressed in the simple clothing of the female protagonists of his Cullercoats scenes.

Homer’s use of jointed mannequins could have developed from an earlier visit to France in 1867. Already by the mid-1850s, Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) had applied wax to jointed wooden figures to fashion a clothed mannequin that he described as leaving the realm of studio practice and becoming part of a different realm of creativity that stimulated his painting of Salome in a new way.13 Moreau’s approach belongs to a longstanding process of using figures to work out complex compositions; an early example is found in the work of Nicolas Poussin, who created elaborate boxes resembling miniature stage sets, in which he placed carefully draped, sculpted mannequins lit to dramatic effect.14 Moreau and his close friend, Edgar Degas (1834–1917), took up the practice of sculpting small figures in wax.15 That Degas considered the creation of realistic miniature figures worthy of his oeuvre is dramatically demonstrated by his Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, exhibited in the sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1881. A sculpture of roughly one-third life scale, Degas’ Dancer shocked  contemporary visitors by the addition of real elements (human hair, satin ribbon, tulle skirt), and sparked the imagination of many surrealists. Degas’ work continues to capture the imagination of the public, including Wyeth, who once said he would travel almost anywhere to see a Degas.16

Jamie Wyeth’s mentors beyond his closely knit family of multigenerational artists, Lincoln Kirstein and Andy Warhol, appear in both of the tableaux vivants that were displayed at the MFA. Both men were closely tied to artists deeply engaged in creating miniature, imaginary worlds. Kirstein himself collected optical toys, stage sets, children’s games and building sets, which he often made available to artists and friends, including Joseph Cornell, who was also an avid balletomane.17 Warhol, a voracious collector of miniature toys and trains, incorporated the concept of the appropriation of the everyday object into his own distinctive oeuvre.

Giant Clam, 1977, Private Collection

When discussing the long engagement of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) with creating elaborate miniature “portfolios” of his works, titled Boîtes en valise and carefully fitted into actual suitcases, Wyeth has said he was not aware of them.18 And yet, Duchamp’s obsession with creating miniatures may have been inspired by the elaborate dollhouse created by Carrie Stettheimer, the older sister of Ettie Stettheimer, for whom Duchamp contributed miniature versions of his painting Nude Descending the Staircase (1912) and other works that hung in the gallery,19 much as Andrew and Jamie Wyeth contributed to Ann McCoy’s dollhouse.

To describe the influence of miniatures in Jamie Wyeth’s oeuvre, the interpretation of Bachelard’s Poetics of Space offers a rich avenue of exploration, as the philosopher emphasizes the importance of artists accessing the creativespace of daydreams. The Wyeth family practice values the imaginative nature of childhood, the wonder of something very small to represent the universal truths of nature—a view that echoes the spirit of the Transcendentalists—and how that wonder can also verge on strangeness; Jamie Wyeth himself claims that he is a “strange painter.”20 Andrew Wyeth intuitively understood the role of daydreaming in the cultivation of artistic imagination, vividly portrayed in his portrait of the five-year-old Jamie lost in thought in Faraway (1952).

For Bachelard, there is a distinct difference between the world of nocturnal dreams, which he characterizes as linear, and those of daydreams, which enable the creative mind to expound upon an idea. Daydreams are achieved when the dreamer is most comfortable, ensconced within the intimate spaces of the home, especially those experienced during childhood. Such intimate homes, Bachelard argues, may also be found in nature as nests and shells, or in the  manmade world of caskets, boxes and miniatures.

In the Brandywine region, some of Jamie Wyeth’s most imaginative works are inspired by the two extremes of basement and attic, which for Bachelard represent the childhood fear of entering a dark cellar, or climbing the stairs to the attic, the loftiest place for daydreaming.21 Wyeth painted both locations early in his career, depicting the lunar landscape of white bulbous mushroom forms, illuminated by the blinding beam of a miner’s headlamp, in Mushroom Picker (1963). When his family moved out of their first home, now the Andrew and Jamie Wyeth Studio (Brandywine River Museum of Art), and into the Mill, where his mother presently resides, he recalled that he was particularly proud of rendering Weathervane (1959) from the top of a tower that was later destroyed. When asked about the genesis of Weathervane, Wyeth recalled that he was inspired to capture the scene as a means of getting his bearings in his new surroundings.22 We find him combining in one sheet multiple views: looking up at the weather vane, across to the snow-tipped roof, and down into the tiny puddle that reflects a miniature version of the scene.

While Andrew Wyeth is known for his scenes of the interiors and barns on the nearby Kuerner Farm, Jamie Wyeth rarely produced scenes of barns as architectural structures within a landscape, preferring instead to show us corners of their interiors (Lime Bag, c. 1964), or animals looking out from the inside (Winter Pig, 1975). Manmade root cellars and natural root dens found throughout the Brandywine forest form an important part of Wyeth’s repertoire, whether rendered as part of the riverscape, in Bung Hole (1967) or Brandywine Spiders (1973), or with the addition of his pack of beloved Jack Russell terriers exploring them in pursuit of small game.

A variation on the root den is the nest, another theme that occupies Wyeth’s imagination in Brandywine. In Jamie’s work, birds are frequently nesting, even if in humorous,  carefully contrived settings. During the 1980s, following his time at the Factory, Wyeth painted a series of barnyard chickens and roosters posed in and around cardboard boxes,  which he rendered with their familiar logos in watercolor and gouache. The messages on the boxes may be tongue-in-cheek statements of his artistic attitude at the time, whether he was sparring with Warhol in Cornflakes (1985), declaring his Moxie (1985), or for an avid sailor, signaling S.O.S. (1985) against an advancing tide of critics. Wyeth also painted many variations on the simple geometric forms of gourds hollowed out to become the nest for purple martins, along with a bevy of paintings inspired by elaborate story-book-cottage bird houses he collects.23

First in the Screen Door Sequence, 2015, Collection of the Brandywine River Museum of Art Chads Ford, Pennsylvania

In the 1970s, following his early fascination with painting portraits of various homes on Monhegan Island, including Twin Houses (1969) and his own home and studio, Kent House (1972), Wyeth began a series of clamshell works, launching themes and concepts that reoccur throughout his Maine paintings. At the age of 22, he purchased Kent House, the former home of the mother of American artist Rockwell Kent on Monhegan, emphasizing an early predilection for removed spaces.24 Giant Clam, a watercolor from 1977, appears just as introspective as Wyeth’s Brandywine nests; however, where the nests are enclosed and intimate, this gleaming half clamshell is exposed to the elements, resting on a rocky ledge before an agitated sea. The watercolor elicits comparison with Caspar David Friedrich’s great Romantic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), in which a lone climber approaches a misty, mountainous vista, turning from the viewer to look back onto the landscape from which he came. Friedrich’s scene is often analyzed as one of reflection, curiosity, self-analysis and discovery,25 implying the distances crossed to achieve insightful realizations about oneself and the world. Similarly, one could look at the clamshell against the water as a reflection on space and origin. As one of the most basic natural home environments, Bachelard examines shells in depth, focusing on the action of creatures emerging from a shell. A shelled animal comes alive by the very fact that it is hidden; the process of withdrawal naturally must announce the process of revealing one’s self.26 This concept of turning inward in order to produce is at play throughout Wyeth’s work: Giant Clam could be interpreted as a metaphor for Wyeth’s productivity in remote locations, the work of an artist open to the broader possibilities that can arise from seclusion.

Wyeth’s other home and studio, a former lighthouse on Southern Island, Maine, also serves as inspiration for paintings. He began painting more actively in the Southern Island studio around 1990, when he was given ownership of the island by his parents. Examining every aspect of the lighthouse, he depicts it more consistently than he has portrayed any other structure up to this point. It is in the lighthouse pictures, including Land’s End (2005) and Lighthouse Iris (1993), that one sees Wyeth proposing a vertical space to link the underground and airy nature of basements and attics — effectively linking his past and present. The tower serves as a visual connection between earth and sky, and a symbolic connection between the enclosure of underground spaces in his Brandywine paintings, and the expansion of higher spaces, which appear throughout his oeuvre from Weathervane to the more recent Rogue Wave (2009), a bird’s-eye view of Wyeth’s lighthouse home. Seen from so high above, Rogue Wave is a painting of Wyeth’s world in miniature, and like his tableaux vivants or other works inspired by the concept of small spaces, serves as an exploration of the memories and places that inspire Wyeth to paint.

Since Wyeth has publicly exhibited his tableaux vivants, his newest works have continued to feature elements of assemblage that fuse the worlds of his past, especially his years with Warhol, and his present. He is currently at work on a series of paintings he calls Series of Screen Doors, which includes a real screen door from his extensive collection of folk art objects, laid over an oil painting of a full-sized figure. In his tableaux vivants, Wyeth invites us to enter his worlds of memories from the Factory and La Côte Basque by cutting away one of the walls for us to view his tableaux vivants. With the Screen Door Series, Wyeth invites us to come face to face with those giants of his world of portraits — such as in First in the Screen Door Sequence, showing Andy Warhol and his dog, Archie. The tableaux vivants extend the miniature world of studio practice into the realm of theatre, and in the Screen Door scenes, Wyeth includes real lighting fixtures that illuminate the figures as though we were stepping up to a real door. Through the combination of real objects and surfaces painted with bravura brushwork, the assemblages hover between memory and experience, and provoke us to contemplate what is conjured up with artistic alchemy and what is real.

NOTES

1. Elliot Bostwick Davis, with an essay by David Houston, Jamie Wyeth (Boston: MFA Publications, 2014). We thank the artist and the curator of the Jamie Wyeth Collection, Mary Beth Dolan, for their collegiality. Elliot Bostwick Davis is indebted to Taylor L. Poulin for her excellent research assistance and other contributions to the success of “Jamie Wyeth.”

2. Conversation with Jamie Wyeth and authors, Tenants Harbor, Maine, November 11, 2015.

3. While Timothy J. Standring notes Andrew Wyeth’s interest in miniature dioramas and includes many of Jamie Wyeth’s miniature figures along with The Factory Dining Room in the current Denver Art Museum exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Wyeth: Andrew & Jamie in the Studio (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), he does not discuss the role of miniatures in relation to their studio practice.

4. See David Revere McFadden, Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Arts and Design (New York: Channel Photographics, 2011).

5. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958). Reprinted with foreword by John R. Stilgoe (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994). Page references are to the 1994 edition.

6. Conversation between Wyeth and Davis, Point Lookout Farm, February 5, 2015.

7. Jamie Wyeth’s The Wind (1999, oil on canvas, private collection), reproduced in Robert Rosenblum, Joyce Hill Stoner and Margaret Rose Vendryes, Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth, Basquiat, exhibition catalogue, Brandywine River Museum of Art (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2006), 61.

8. Conversation among the artist and authors, MFA, Boston, June 23, 2014.

9. Joyce Hill Stoner, “Wyeth Vertigo: On Land and Sea, in the Air, and at the Dinner Table,” in Wyeth Vertigo, exhibition catalogue, Shelburne Museum (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2013), 25.

10. “Art and Inspiration,” public conversation between Wyeth and Davis, MFA, Boston, September 21, 2014.

11. His source was a photograph in the Winslow Homer monograph of the Time-Life Library of Art. See James Thomas, The World of Winslow Homer, 1836–1910 (Time Life Library of Art, 1975), 116.

12. Helen A. Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 105.

13. “There is a fatal moment where art transforms itself to take on the quality of that which surrounds it.” Translation by authors. Original quote in Jane Munro, Silent Partners: Art and Mannequin from Function to Fetish, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 22–23.

14. Ibid., 18.

15. Joseph S. Czestochowski, “Degas’s Sculptures Re-examined: The Marketing of a Private Pursuit,” Joseph S. Czestochowski and Anne Pingeot, Degas Sculptures: Catalogue Raisonné of the Bronzes (Memphis: International Arts, 2002), 29.

16. See Theodore Reff, “To Make Sculpture Modern,” in ibid., p. 52, and conversation between Wyeth and Davis, MFA, Boston, May 13, 2013.

17. The Lincoln Kirstein Collection of Optical Toys and Stage Sets survives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, largely through the friendship of Kirstein and fellow Harvard graduate A. Hyatt Mayor, the legendary head of the Department of Prints. See Davis, Jamie Wyeth, 40–42; and Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, exhibition catalogue, Peabody Essex Museum (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

18. “Art and Inspiration,” MFA, Boston, September 21, 2014.

19. See Quinn Darlington, “Modernism’s Miniatures: Space and Gender in the Stettheimer Dollhouse and Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise” (Master’s Thesis, University of Notre Dame, 2012), and Sheila W. Clark, The Stettheimer Dollhouse (New York: Pomegranate, 2009).

20. David Michaelis, et al., Wondrous Strange: The Wyeth Tradition (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998) and “Art and Inspiration,” MFA, Boston, September 21, 2014.

21. Bachelard, Poetics, 17–26.

22. Conversation, Point Lookout Farm, February 5, 2015.

23. For examples, see Birds’ House, Bird Church and Martin Castle, all 1989.

24. Davis, Jamie Wyeth, 126–127.

25. John Lewis Gaddis, Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 15; and Michael Gorra, The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), xii. Accessed through ProQuest December 11, 2014. Wyeth certainly explored the theme of climbers with their backs to the sea in his series based on a recurring dream of 2009. See Davis, Jamie Wyeth, 169 and 174–77.

26. Bachelard, Poetics, 111.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 36, Number 2