Photo by Victoria Wyeth, 1996
© 1996 Victoria Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth was born on July 12, 1917 into an artist family in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. His father, N.C. Wyeth, who had gained fame as the illustrator of Scribner’s Classics, was also a painter and muralist. N.C. had studied with Howard Pyle, a famous illustrator and progenitor of the “Brandywine School,” a term that has since been applied to Pyle’s students and their followers, including two of Andrew's siblings and eventually his son. Originally this school of painting focused on the Brandywine River valley, its rich farmland, wooded glens, and pre-colonial architecture built by Quaker, Scots-Irish, and Swedish settlers.
Andrew grew up under the tutelage of his unconventional and imposing father, who imbued him with a passion for nature, books, and music, and a disdain for cities and analytical institutions. On long walks together in the countryside, they steeped themselves in both the human and natural history of their locale. Andrew was encouraged to paint and draw, and to cultivate his imagination and emotions. When he began to study in his father’s studio as a young teenager, he was rigorously trained in an academic method, using plaster casts, still lifes, and live models. N.C. stressed the primacy of identifying with the model, merging with the subject, and committing the details to memory.
Wyeth’s fondness for his neighbors, the routines of daily life, and the meanings found in ordinary objects can be seen in his tempera Groundhog Day of 1959. The kitchen table is set for Karl Kuerner, a neighbor farmer who had served as a surrogate father to Andrew after the untimely death of N.C. Wyeth. The artist recollected "That February day the sun’s rays caught the corner of the table that was set for dinner, awaiting the return of Mr. Kuerner from a farm sale in Lancaster." Beneath this simple recollection lies much more, for the painting is a classic example of Wyeth’s imaginative picture-building, using memory, metaphor, and numerous studies that record the appearance in the composition of Kuerner’s wife, Anna, and the farm dog, Nell. Although the figures disappeared in the final painting, their emotional presence remains, lending both the mystery and tension typical of Wyeth’s work.
Expressive pictorial devices are employed to convey emotion in Public Sale, a pivotal work of the 1940s. This tempera painting depicts the forced sale of a farm in Lancaster County, after the death of the farmer’s wife. Wyeth, moved by the somber mood of the event, made numerous sketches of people and objects on the spot, but subsequently omitted them from the final painting, explaining "it’s not what you put in but what you leave out that counts." This process of simplification and distillation, added to Wyeth’s use of the barren landscape to provide emotional atmosphere, sets his work apart from the social realism of his contemporaries.