The ‘Memory and Magic’ of Wyeth

Philadelphia Museum retrospective devoted to Andrew Wyeth’s seven-decade career

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, an exhibition that surveys seven decades of the artist’s achievement, from March 29-July 16.

The retrospective will include more than 100 works, among them tempera paintings and watercolors from the 1930s to the present. It will explore in depth Wyeth’s frequently unadorned and often haunting images — ranging from natural forms like rocks and trees and humble containers such as buckets, to stark rooms, windows with curtains lifted in the breeze, bare hills, and people lost in deep introspection. The works, many of which draw upon his boyhood experiences in and lifelong affection for the Brandywine Valley near Philadelphia and on the coast of Maine, are lent from public and private collections across the country and from the private collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.

“Andrew Wyeth’s highly personal art has been etched in the American public consciousness as an expression of rural life for at least half a century. It is also important to realize that Wyeth is very much part of a larger picture: his work has been deeply informed by the early tempera paintings of the Italian Renaissance, the charged realism of Thomas Eakins, or the broad brushwork of Franz Kline, among other artists whom he admires,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “His extraordinary skills with any medium he chooses are deployed to express his complex and restless vision, and we hope this exhibition will provide a deeper understanding of the range of his contribution as an artist,” she said.

“Ford Motor Co. is honored to participate in this exciting celebration of the art of Andrew Wyeth, a true American icon. Ford is committed to supporting the spirit of America and preserving our heritage,” said Sandra E. Ulsh, president, Ford Motor Co. Fund. “We are proud to partner with the High Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to salute the vision of Andrew Wyeth and to bring his work to a wide national audience.”

Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic will explore the major themes that have occupied Wyeth’s art over the past 70 years, including nature studies that frequently evoke the transience of life, images of vessels and thresholds that metaphorically signal various kinds of transitions, and still lifes and portraits that may suggest or record the people who have appeared in his life. Kathleen Foster, the Robert L. McNeil Jr. curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will oversee the exhibition in Philadelphia. She noted that throughout his career, Wyeth’s vision has been built in part upon the tension between observation and imagination: “Studying his subjects closely, he adds power by simplifying and distilling his image. It’s often the elimination, not only of figures but of extraneous detail, that allows the artist to back away from realism and press forward the emotional and artistic message of painting.”

The exhibition reflects Wyeth’s intense engagement with his various media over time. Among the works on view are 58 paintings in egg tempera, a technique so time-consuming and intense that Wyeth completes only about two paintings a year. It also includes 27 watercolors, among them early ones that convey an exuberance reminiscent of Winslow Homer, preparatory studies that inform Wyeth’s more finished temperas, and other mature, independent works in which closely observed subjects are often anchored into complex compositions with earth-toned washes. There are 16 works in drybrush, an exceptionally meticulous watercolor technique that in Wyeth’s hands may often resemble tempera. Five pencil drawings that are studies for larger works and two rare early oil paintings that reflect both the young Wyeth’s dexterity and his father’s teaching, are also on view.

While the exhibition opens with a number of Wyeth’s early works and closes with some of his most recent, little-known ones, it is organized largely into thematic sections in which early, middle and recent work is juxtaposed. The exhibition reflects what guest curator Anne Knutson, in her catalog essay, calls “the complex intersections between objects, the body and memory, delving into the common experience of things triggering reminiscences.”

Highlights of the exhibition include many familiar images drawn from a lifetime divided between Chadds Ford, Pa., and Maine where Wyeth, now in his 89th year, spends his summers.

Winter 1946, completed just a few months after a train in Chadds Ford struck Wyeth’s father, the famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, reflects the artist’s response to his death. It shows a young neighbor chased by his shadow down a sunlit hill, perhaps a metaphor for the artist himself, alone and adrift in a world without his father. Michael Taylor, the Museum’s Muriel and Philip Berman curator of Modern Art, noted in his essay, the boy careens across “the bulging landscape that has become the living embodiment of N.C. Wyeth’s massive, heaving chest.”

The exhibition contains several works from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including Groundhog Day of 1959, one of Wyeth’s best-known paintings. It will be exhibited in context with preparatory drawings and watercolors that chart Wyeth’s working process leading to the finished painting. The tempera conveys the sense of pale sunlight raking across a windowsill and striking the flowered wallpaper of a kitchen in the Kuerner farm, Chadds Ford, where a table is set for one. According to Foster, Wyeth himself regards it as a portrait of his neighbor Karl Kuerner, and she quotes Wyeth saying it was his attempt to “get down to the essence of the man who wasn’t there.”

Wyeth’s often elliptical approach to his subjects is also reflected in some of his recent work, including an ambitious, large-scale tempera of a river scene completed in 2003. Horizontal in format, The Carry depicts a surge of water roaring over rocks, turning through a narrow passage and flowing into a calm expanse. It conveys the strong motion of water toward the softly lit bank and woods in the distance. Wyeth recently described this painting in highly personal terms, identifying aspects of himself with the contrasting lights and darks and alternating moods of turbulence and peacefulness that co-exist in the picture, and suggesting the continuity that extends through the artist’s career.

Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta with the collaboration of the Wyeth family and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Before opening in Philadelphia, it was on view at the High through February.

The curatorial team for Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic includes guest curator Ann Classen Knutson for the High Museum of Art, and, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kathleen A. Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. curator of American Art, and Michael Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman curator of Modern Art.

Catalog available

In the fully illustrated catalog, published by the High Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Rizzoli International Publications Inc., Knutson explores the central role of objects in Wyeth’s art and situates these works in the larger context of American art. Foster discusses the artist’s tempera painting Groundhog Day (1959) in terms of its meaning and technique and related works in tempera, watercolor and drawing; and Taylor writes about Wyeth’s relationship to currents in Realism and Surrealism in the 1930s and 1940s. Christopher Crosman, the director of the Farnsworth Art Museum, examines the role of Betsy Wyeth in the artist’s life and art. The book also contains an introduction by John Wilmerding, the Christopher B. Sarofim 1986 Professor of American Art at Princeton University. Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (cloth, $49.95; paper, $35) is now available in the museum store, or call (800) 329-4856, or visit www.philamuseum.org.

The catalog is supported by a generous grant from the Davenport Family Foundation.

Andrew Wyeth in Context

Coinciding with Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, the museum also will present in gallery 119 a related installation drawn from its extensive holdings of landscape painting from May 27-July 16. Highlighting works dated from 1900 until today, it will include contemporary artists as Chester County’s George “Frolic” Weymouth and the celebrated Pennsylvania Impressionists of an earlier generation in Bucks County: Daniel Garber, Edward Redfield and Walter Elmer Schofield, among others. The exhibition also will explore the various ways in which American artists have approached landscape, from the modernist paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Philadelphia’s Arthur B. Carles, to images by such contemporary artists as the noted photographer Clifford Ross. The installation is organized by Michael Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman curator of Modern Art.

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