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Chester County Press

Jamie Wyeth walks through 60 years of his artwork

01/19/2015 04:08PM ● By J. Chambless

Wyeth with 'Pumpkinhead' (1972), a self-portrait that shows the artist's self-deprecating sense of humor.

Jamie Wyeth good-naturedly winced at the mention of his 60 years as an artist, but as he walked around a retrospective exhibit of his works on Jan. 16 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, he seemed very much at home.

The Chadds Ford museum opened "Jamie Wyeth" with a reception on Friday evening, and Wyeth -- accompanied by his wife, Phyllis, and about a dozen journalists with cameras and recorders -- got to see how the museum had arranged a show that had previously been on display in Boston. "Well, it looks great," he said, glancing around the gallery as camera flashes went off all around him. "I haven't had a chance to see the whole thing yet, though."

The exhibit is on two floors of the museum, and showcases more than 120 works, ranging from his earliest childhood doodles to works produced in the last two years. While Wyeth was happy to offer his thoughts on his landmark works, such as "Draft Age" and "Portrait of Pig," he admitted that his favorite paintings are whatever he's currently working on.

One floor of the exhibit is arranged basically chronologically, starting with drawings done in the early 1950s. "Aunt Carolyn," which was preserved by Wyeth's mother in 1958, shows Jamie's aunt, naked, answering the door for the mailman, who is peeking through the window at her. Clearly, Jamie was already displaying a gift for wry detail and the eccentricities of his family.

In the six decades since, he has completed some 3,500 works that are rooted in the realist Brandywine tradition but consistently pull at the constraints of his father Andrew's style. Frequently, Jamie Wyeth surprises you with unconventional subjects, jarring colors, or humorous works that don't readily explain themselves.

As a nod to the grandfather he never met, the first painting in the show is "The Child's Illustrator" (2005), a resonant memory painting of N.C. Wyeth's studio, with a ship model, doll furniture, vases and portrait busts on display. The poignant title is an acknowledgement of how the art world treated N.C.'s works -- as children's illustrations, and not the great art he aspired to create.

"That studio has always had such an amazing effect on me," Wyeth said. "As a child, I spent days there. At that time, it was full of my grandfather's illustrations of Robin Hood and all these costumes. Then I'd go back to our home, which was my father's studio, and he'd be painting a dead bird or something," he added with a smile.

In one 1949 watercolor sketch of Jamie done by Andrew Wyeth, Jamie has added his own pencil doodle of a fisherman in a boat along the bottom edge. It's a wonderful meeting point of the two artists, and shows Jamie's early gift for examining things from an unconventional point of view.

Visitors will be surprised by "Record Player" (1964), a major oil in which the title object is completely obscured by the back of a person who is kneeling to change the record on the turntable. The dazzling "Portrait of Shorty," done when Wyeth was only 17, clearly shows his masterful technique was acquired early. Among the other surprises, there's an early study for "Draft Age," a commissioned portrait of Helen Taussig from 1963 that proved that Wyeth wasn't cut out for the politics of doing commissioned portraits, and "The Weather Vane" (1959), a watercolor that's very much in the Andrew Wyeth style, with a muted tone and telling details.

It contrasts vividly with the section of works produced when Wyeth was working with Andy Warhol in the 1970s. Wyeth gets to the eccentric essence of the artist in several works, particularly a 1976 portrait in which Warhol looks vaguely startled and his dog stares threateningly at the viewer. "I was fascinated by him, and spent a couple of years working with him. He was very childlike," Wyeth said. "We spent most of our time going to toy stores."

There are several sketches and portraits of Rudolph Nureyev, as well as Wyeth's riveting posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy.

Perhaps most surprising are the two miniature rooms Wyeth constructed using figures of famous people and very detailed furnishings. Visitors have to peer inside them to make out who is sitting inside. The works, completed in 2013, are a complete departure for Wyeth. But do they perhaps echo the beloved dollhouses of his late aunt, Ann Wyeth McCoy? Wyeth smiled and nodded. "Maybe they do," he said, recalling his aunt's "extraordinary" walk-in dollhouse that stood near her home in Chadds Ford.

He said the exhibit seemed like a homecoming for him. "There are an awful lot of ghosts running around here. The Brandywine is like the House of the Seven Gables," he said, laughing.

On the floor above, there are almost too many paintings to be absorbed in a single visit, with the reconfigured gallery stretching nearly the length of the building. Here, you'll find icons such as "Pumpkinhead -- Self-Portrait" (1972), the dog portrait "Kleberg" (1984), the monumental "Raven" (1980), and "Sea Star" (1985), an oil of a gull on a shell-speckled beach, displayed in a frame studded with thousands of tiny shells that Wyeth said he gathered himself on the beach where he painted the gull.

Seeing Wyeth's work in person is frequently a revelation. The glow of the sunlight in "Kent House" (1972) makes the rocky coastline stand out in nearly three-dimensional detail, and the texture of the ram's coat in "The Islander" (1975) is depicted in vivid detail.

Wyeth's unique sense of humor and scale is evident in "Wreck of the Polias" (2002), which blends the looming menace of a rusted propeller with two cute dogs peering over a cliff at the viewer below.

One room is dedicated to thematically similar works done on Monhegan Island, where Wyeth has a home. The arching wing shapes and gaping beaks of the seagulls in his "Seven Deadly Sins" series give enormous energy to the room. There are also several dramatic paintings based on his dreams, in which Wyeth depicts N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth surveying a stormy sea, as Andy Warhol stands furtively at a distance, watching them.

"Ice Floe" and "Berg," from 2012, are immersive, bone-chilling depictions of ice blocks, blue-black ocean depths, and Wyeth's home on the shoreline, lit by a sliver of yellow-orange sky.

Pausing in the gallery to survey a wall of his works, Wyeth recalled his father's advice. "The last words he ever said to me were, 'Give 'em hell,'" he said with a wry grin. "So maybe I have."

"Jamie Wyeth" continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford) through April 5. Visit for more information.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail

Slug: Wyeth

Photos by John Chambless

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Jamie Wyeth, flanked by museum director Thomas Padon and exhibit curator Elliot Bostwick Davis, at the opening of his retrospective exhibition on Jan. 16.

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Wyeth with his iconic 'Draft Age,' a portrait of his friend, Jimmy Lynch, 'who was like a brother to me,' Wyeth said.

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Wyeth with 'Pumpkinhead' (1972), a self-portrait that shows the artist's self-deprecating sense of humor.

Courtesy photo


'Portrait of Shorty' (1963), oil on canvas, 18 by 22 inches. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.

Courtesy photo

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'Kent House' (1972), oil on canvas, 30 by 40 inches. Brandywine River Museum of Art Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Wyeth, 1985.

Courtesy photo


'The Sea, Watched' (2009), oil on canvas, 30 by 48 inches. Private collection.

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