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Surveying the scope of Andrew Wyeth's career

06/23/2017 11:23AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Andrew Wyeth in the studio, circa 1935.

Gallery: Andrew Wyeth 'In Retrospect' [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Covering two floors of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, and including more than 100 works, “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” is almost too much to take in. With landmark works, fascinating sketches, and paintings that you've never seen before, the major exhibition requires pacing yourself, and you'll need at least an hour and a half to even begin to properly examine everything.

But you will be rewarded many times over by this landmark show, which marks what would have been the artist's 100th year. Wyeth, who died in 2009, left a legacy of works that are beautiful, astounding and strange, and “In Retrospect” packs it all under one roof.

Visitors start on the museum's third floor, beginning with Wyeth's 1936 sketch of his father, “Pa With Glasses,” and continuing with his late 1930s landscapes and seascapes, painted with expressive bands of vivid watercolor – a palette that he would gradually distill to its bare bones during his long career. The colorful early 1940s temperas “Dil Huey Farm,” “Frog Hunters” and “Winter Fields” have a similar shadowy tone and air of mystery. “Public Sale” (1943) is a view of a Lancaster County farm at auction, with a crowd just over the rise of a hill, and tire tracks slicing through the dried grass like a scalpel.

You'll see the magically lighted “Night Hauling” (1944), the rarely seen “Oil Lamp” (1945), and “Mother Archie's Church” (1945), a view of the cracked, timeworn ceiling of the long-gone building, with a central, lighted dove in the window as a symbol of peace.

The pivotal tempera “Winter 1946,” which marked Wyeth's grappling with his father's death and his re-dedication to expanding his own work, launches the viewer into the second phase of the exhibition, which focuses on people and places largely away from Chadds Ford. You'll find “Below Dover,” a 1950 tempera of a landlocked boat in a southern Delaware field; “Miss Olson,” a tender view of Christina Olson holding a kitten; and a series of studies of Chadds Ford resident James Loper. There's “Snow Flurries” (1953), an expanse of dry hillside that you can get lost in, and the visceral light and shadow of “Cooling Shed” (1953).

There are remarkable studies in pencil and watercolor for “That Gentleman” (1959), and some studies of isolated objects, such as “Winter Bees” (1959), in which the tree bark and beehive seem almost three-dimensional. “Lime Banks” (1962) is a view of an eroded seaside bluff that's a virtuoso symphony of white on white.

On the first floor, the story continues, with “The Drifter” (1964), several studies for “Adam” (1963) and a watercolor titled “Day of the Fair” (1963), which depicts a young African-American woman in her best dress, her hands nervously in her lap, lost in reverie. It speaks volumes about the race relations of the era when it was painted.

Wyeth depicts his sister, Carolyn, in “Up in the Studio” (1965), with her facing away from the viewer, her gaze and pose capturing both her melancholy and her fierce independence. There's the iconic “Spring Fed” (1967), as well as Wyeth's portrait of his wife, Betsy, “Maga's Daughter” (1966). “Room After Room” (1967) shows Christina Olson, old and isolated, in her crumbling Maine home. It's a somber symphony of deep shadows and isolation.

The spectacular “Thin Ice” (1969) is seen here for the first time since it was purchased by a collector in Japan just after it was painted. It depicts brown leaves under ice, with streams of air bubbles indicating movement and life. One dried leaf sticks out of the ice, partially escaping but still caught in its grip.

There are several views of the Erickson family of Cushing, Maine, and of the Kuerners of Chadds Ford, particularly the astonishing portrait of Karl Kuerner casually holding a rifle that happens to be pointed directly at his wife, Anna. The gulf of blank wall between them and the implied violence gets to the heart of a relationship that had nevertheless endured for decades.

There are masterful nudes showing model Helga Testorf in repose (“Black Velvet”) as well as the sensuous “Lovers” (1981). Wyeth's “Adrift” (1982), showing fisherman Walt Anderson asleep – or dead – in a boat is accompanied by a detailed pencil study and two watercolor studies.

The later sections of the show contain “Pentecost” (1989), a view of fishing nets billowing in the wind on a Maine coastline. Wyeth reportedly called this “My only pretty picture,” but it is underlaid by the death of a woman who was swept out to sea in Maine, and the meticulously rendered nets perhaps suggest her spirit.

“Airborne” (1996) is a view of a home and coastline of Maine, with feathers fluttering in the wind, suggesting the violent death of a seabird has just occurred.

By the time you get to “Sparks” (2001), a huge tempera of a whitewashed room in Wyeth's home with swirling embers in the fireplace; and “The Carry” (2003), which symbolizes both the headlong rush and careful deliberation of Wyeth's character, you are left with Wyeth's final painting.

The rarely exhibited “Goodbye” (2008), completed just a few months before his death, shows a sailboat drifting off the left edge of an island coast in Maine, with a stark white building on the shoreline. The building had been presented to Wyeth by Betsy to mark the artist's 91st birthday. The shadowy figure on the boat is perhaps Wyeth himself, sliding quietly away.

What “In Retrospect” does, with its careful selection of works and thoughtful analysis of each work, is show that Wyeth was never merely depicting the appearance of his subjects. He consistently sought to get to the heart of the emotions of his sitters and the resonance of a particular place. He altered scenes to suit his purposes, left out easy answers, suggested voluminous backstories and achieved more artistic masterworks than any artist should rightfully have. It's a testament to his quiet but indomitable spirit that this show will linger with you long after you leave the museum.

“Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford) through Sept. 17. It then moves to the Seattle Art Museum in October. Visit www.brandywine.org/museum for tickets and more information.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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