A Master of a Different Medium
I was never into Andrew Wyeth, any more than I aspired toward Norman Rockwell. Neither formed my standard in art toward whom I would copy and emulate. Rockwell was an illustrator of Americana scenes in the Saturday Evening Post. Andrew Wyeth was considered more of a “serious painter,” albeit with strong ties to the world of illustration. N. C. Wyeth, Andrew’s father, was a successful book illustrator. The Wyeth’s came from a long standing New England family who could trace their history back to the French and Indian Wars. N.C.’s mother was an acquaintance of Henry David Thoreau and the poet Longfellow. They were New England Yankees through and through.
As for Rockwell and the Wyeth family’s art work, I had respect for it but knew it was not my own direction.
Here is a little background about Andrew’s father, N.C.:
N.C. Wyeth was born in 1882, in Massachusetts to parents Andrew Newell Wyeth II and Henriette Zirngiebel Wyeth. An ancestor, Nicholas Wyeth, a stonemason, came to Massachusetts from England in 1645. Later ancestors were prominent participants in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War, passing down rich oral histories and tradition to Wyeth and his family and providing subject matter for his art, which was deeply felt. His maternal ancestors came from Switzerland, and during her childhood, his mother was acquainted with literary giants Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His literary appreciation and artistic talents appear to have come from her.(Wikipedia)
Family traditions and stories were important to the Wyeth clan. They could keep their lineage intact. I came from a family that had scattered to the wind. Scoundrels, scalawags and ne’er do-wells most likely formed my gene pool of family history more than I would like to admit. We had not an illustrious New England line like the Wyeth’s.
Andrew was sickly as a child, so kept home for schooling. He was taught painting by his father. As a young artist he decided not to take up the brush of an “illustrator” for publications, but explore his own style, subject matter, and aesthetic independence. He also wanted to explore the different medium of egg tempera. He was encouraged in his artistic life wholeheartedly by his father, who made a very good means as a famous illustrator. However, when Andrew was just getting started in his art life, N.C. died tragically in a car crash after his vehicle stalled on a train tracks and was hit by an oncoming train. That left a deep hole in the heart of the young man.
The masterpiece we all know by Andrew Wyeth is “Christina’s World” hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At a time when painters like Guston and Pollock, Newman and Klein were exploring the abstractions of action painting, Wyeth was in his home in Maine painting his crippled neighbor in a field. It is as if every blade of grass was painted, with carefully placed brushstrokes by the thousands, exacting precise pigments of egg tempera. The field becomes an almost oceanic swell that nearly drowns us in grass. Christina, with her back to us in a faded pink dress, low in the massive swell of a field, pulls herself along with thin emaciated arms in a vector that painfully points her lonely way to the top of the horizon. The whole scene almost makes us gasp for air. Will we make it to the top, to that meeting with atmosphere and life giving air, or drown low in the sea of grass without any help from the universe?
It Is A Lonely World
The wintry stark landscapes and interiors of Andrew Wyeth’s themes cannot help but leave us in a kind of Quaker silence and a Shaker simplicity of excruciating loneliness. The buildings look like they have not been painted in years, and the driftwood gray and deep umber shadows forbear on us. We can be emblazoned by the brightness of an ever returning snow scene, in the winter of our discontent, but we nevertheless cannot escape this kind of existential paradigm of the lone soul against the backdrop of an infinite void of nature’s silence and the inevitable decay of time.
Winter scenes, dilapidated houses one could hardly inhabit, ominous skies of continual cloudy weather, oceans of grass in which we almost find ourselves drowning—these are the environments Wyeth loves to paint. And should we love to go in there? They do have an attractive beauty, like a corpse may be drawing our admiration to ponder like Hamlet with his boney skull contemplating “to be or not to be.” One longs for a cadmium yellow-orange somewhere. We are spectrally deprived as Wyeth banishes us to the Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and the Cushing, Maine farmsteads of perennial gloom of winter glum that creeps into our souls and never leaves.
But Death Was All Around
Wyeth had an obsession with the melancholic, even death. His father’s sudden and accidental death had to have an impact on young Andrew, but in ways that convinced his soul not to get too fooled by time and momentary attachments that are fleeting and impermanent. Wyeth was pressed to the wall of the spirit, and even so, could see some thread of beauty even in the impermanent.
There is an existential precedent in this picture of a man thawing out from having frozen to death. For most, life and death seem to just happen to them unannounced. In that ocean of grass, the swell rises too high and the figure drowns in this case back into the reservoir of hump-backed matter. The earth prevails. These bodies of men do not. Wherefore, Wyeth is a deathist in the sense he believes and enacts the experiences of termination. One can feel the spiritual ascendency, but up to this point it is at the expense of the body. Or somewhat divorced from the dance of life, unless you are a blade of inexplicable grass.
Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out!
When Timothy Leary and the Hippies were in Haight-Ashbury doing LSD and having extraterrestrial and psychedelic experiences, Andrew Wyeth was in Chadds Ford and Cushing having a very terrestrial experience, nevertheless “psychedelic” one of his own. Wyeth was so grounded in the earth, the sea, the sky, and the melding nature of ultimate compost, it was an amazing grace for him to paint an alive thing in the midst of the entropic draw to melt back into the dust—or in his case the moist and muddy snow-melted earth. He definitely tuned in to this. For sure he was turned on to the detail that would record every blade of grass in a field of miry turf. And here is the rub. Wyeth did drop out from the main stream of modern life. His paintings issue forth from the hand of a 19th century man, not the 20th century man. Let alone one from this new millennium.
The influence from his father’s draw to illustrate the romances of King Arthur, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, Treasure Island, and the adventures that captivate the boyish heart never left Andrew Wyeth’s psyche. Yet, to find the nobility in the earthly natural, and see the hero in the neighbor next door, kept him hovering around his limbo world, in a kind of Brigadoon of a mythical hamlet outside of time. One would be hard pressed to find this world today, if only through these works left behind by this masterful conjurer of visual myth. Just like in the musical, Tommy falls in love with the young woman Fiona in this mysterious Scottish village that only appears one day (from out of the ethers) every one hundred years; and Andrew Wyeth has his Helga that he paints as his Highland Goddess over and over again in a Chadds Ford hamlet, totally off the grid of 20th Century life.
Helga is his new Christine, his Muse of Brigadoon
Every artist must have his muse. For Andrew, it was not necessarily Betsy his wife. Helga Testorf became his muse for many years.
In 1986, extensive coverage was given to the revelation of a series of 247 studies of the German-born Helga Testorf, whom Wyeth met while she was attending to Karl Kuerner at his farm. Wyeth painted her over the period 1971–85 without the knowledge of either his wife or Helga’s husband, John Testorf. Helga, a caregiver with nursing experience, had never modeled before but quickly became comfortable with the long periods of posing, during which he observed and painted her in intimate detail. She is nearly always portrayed as unsmiling and passive; yet, within those deliberate limitations, Wyeth manages to convey subtle qualities of character and mood, as he does in many of his best portraits. This extensive study of one subject in differing contexts and emotional states is unique in American art.Wikipedia
I would not speculate about the intimate relationship they may or may not have had. But the intimacy required to paint a person this close up and detailed, pensive and in your face present, transcends any notions we may have of impropriety. Helga was Andrew’s nordic goddess no doubt. She gave him refuge to find something alive in an otherwise molting world. He sheds the skin of a winter hibernation and actually arouses some real life blood.
The fact that these intimate rendezvous took place unbeknownst to either spouse is remarkable, given the time and commitment it would have taken to execute these works over a fifteen year period between 1971 and 1985. Over 250 works were produced. Obviously there was a mutual bond between the artist and his muse. Helga says in this documentary, “There are many ways of making love, you know. So maybe two souls, they were meant to be.” She also says being Andrew Wyeth’s muse during those years made her feel born again. This video is well worth watching.
The scandal that ensued in the press was considerable, partly due to the secrecy these two maintained during the fifteen years in the making of this major body of Wyeth’s painting legacy. There was an intimacy that included the sexual implications, but from what we gather it was completely channeled into the creative act of the painting itself.
Love Beyond Measure
There is a Love that cannot be measured. The best we can do is give our all to that Force, and it will reflect in our deeds and actions. Brigadoon exists for all of us, that one day in a hundred years in which perfection dawns on us, and we are happy that we have had a vision, ever so short, in the dross of time, to transcend death and all the sorrow of the world. Andrew and Helga had those moments. All of the loneliness of wintery doldrums and the pain of physical existence that comes through in the damp and snowy ground of depression and discontent, is lifted off. Wyeth soars high to the precipice of the stars in these portraits of Helga.
Tempered he was, to have a father so attentive to his needs and aspirations, and to have that figure wrenched away in death at such an early age. This tragedy would have an impact on anyone, especially if that one possessed the genius of a Leonardo or a Raphael flowing through their veins. Wyeth painted this melancholia all of his life, except those times in which he stepped outside of time and melded with his muse. Helga Testorf provided that Love Beyond Measure for the artist, Andrew Wyeth, and we are the beneficiaries of these paintings outside of time. They take us as well into that vortex of truth and beauty that we all yearn to know—one of our own immortality.
Thank you for joining me on this Art Look. It flowed in one way and flowed out the other. It came in with the doldrums of winter, and exited with the hope of a new spring. I trust you were uplifted as well. I certainly was, getting to know Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf more closely. I leave you with this painting of Helga with a “Crown of Flowers,”and a photo of Andrew with his steely stare. Be kind in your assessments. I certainly was, especially after I watched that little You Tube piece by Helga.
Be happy and appreciate beauty. That is God’s Will for us. Love as much as you can, as much as you are able. Love to your limits, and then love a little more. Love and happiness go together.