The Wyeth family has survived, much like two other American dynasties, the Kennedys and the Barrymores, through an admixture of independence and intimacy.
If Joseph P. Kennedy expected one if not all of his sons to assume the presidency, N.C., the Wyeth patriarch and illustrator of Scribner’s Classics, yearned for his children to devote themselves to the same painting style as his: naturalistic detailed scenes of man and Nature.
The Wyeths are bound together as ambitiously as the Kennedys, though their art has degraded over time from N.C. to his grandson Jamie, just as Lionel Barrymore’s thespian legend can be found in name only with his grandniece, Drew. Yet, despite its omissions and disappointments, the new show at the Kemper Museum of Art, “The Wyeths: Three Generations of Artistry” (running through November 29), makes evident that sometimes familiarity breeds contentment.
For people over fifty, N.C. Wyeth’s exciting illustrations to “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” are half the memories of reading—of becoming immersed in, really—novels that triggered youthful imaginations. For those under fifty, Andrew (N.C. and his wife Carol’s youngest of five children) is known for the much reproduced and parodied “Christina’s World.”
Their dominance within the family, as opposed to the art establishment that has never embraced them, feels as insular as in a Faulkner tale where the outside world endures as a threat to change.
The family traces itself back to the Battle of Concord and Bunker Hill; N.C., born in 1882, filled himself and his children up on American history: Thoreau and Robert Louis Stevenson, the Saturday afternoon matinees and “The Saturday Evening Post” (one of the many magazines that defined American life).
His son, Andrew, carried forth that spirit until his death, this January, at age ninety-one; as recounted in the infrequent interviews he gave throughout his seventy-five year career and in Richard Meryman’s comprehensive 1996 biography, Wyeth growled about abstraction, critics, realism, and being misunderstood both outside and in America.
The Kemper show groups father, son, and grandson (with two portraits by N.C.’s daughter Henriette) into the main gallery, a bit misleadingly. It starts with three of N.C.’s works: a harsh self-portrait and two of the once-stylish illustrations from the nineteen-twenties. Next, Jamie is represented in a large portrait from 1966 of a young woman.
Only then does Andrew Wyeth make his customary appearance in tempera (his lifelong medium) with “Pageboy,” 1979. The eldest artist, confined to the minor allotment that begins promisingly as a family chronicle, is subsequently missed; more could have been explained about him in wall labels or in the catalogue, both of which presume the viewer knows the Wyeths’ tangled legacy as fully as Crosby and Bebe Kemper, longtime friends of Andrew and generous donors of the family’s works around Kansas City. The rest of the exhibition alternates Andrew and Jamie, watercolors and temperas, portraits, still lifes and landscapes.
Understanding the Wyeths’ art and their place in American art is less a matter of chronology than of thematic implications. The Kemper follows that approach, which turns out to be more promising in revealing connections instead of simply highlighting the art.
N.C. made his name turning out magazine and book illustrations along the lines of his mentor Howard Pyle. Pyle’s self-started art school in Wilmington, Delaware, included graduates like Maxfield Parrish, who covered the major magazines of the era, “Harper’s Monthly” and “The Saturday Evening Post”; the prevailing style was colorful, diagrammatic, with emphasis on shadows and sunshine.
Pyle had limited formal art education before branching out on his own; in turn, N.C. was Andrew’s only teacher, and one senses, if not for the outside world that eventually seeped in (i.e., Andy Warhol), Jamie’s style might have been more like his father’s, too.
Andrew’s haven in the Brandywine River region of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, provided him with the security and the solitude to work as he pleased; his trademark temperas may show off his work, but the watercolors, I think, are actually proof of his savoring his labors. When a painting like “The Woodchopper,” 1940, is held up against a watercolor like “Christina’s Bedroom,” 1947, the former feels glossy, yes, and detailed; yet the watercolor feels informed with life: it may be empty of everything but a cat on the bed, the surroundings may be abstracted towards the edges of the work, and still the entire composition draws in the viewer.
In too many of Wyeth’s temperas the story appears all in the style; it was the problem with his latter-day scandalous Helga Olson nudes—they were fascinating more for the context than for the content. None of those works are in the Kemper’s show, which is all for the good because it would reduce the entire effect to Helga’s anatomy. Her presence here in the mannish “Pageboy” and in the chaste bedroom watercolor leaves her out of the equation as a home wrecker and restores her more accurately to her longtime role as his housekeeper.
The milieu of Chadds Ford, with its natural beauty and historical heritage (the Battle of Brandywine in the Revolutionary War was another historical association), was inspiration for Andrew and to a lesser extent for Jamie.
For all the talk about America, Andrew Wyeth’s America is not the GOP-approved version. The works on display at the Kemper represent a mixed view of the countryside and its countrymen: in watercolors like “Gulf and Water,” 1937, “Independence Day,” 1961, and the grand “Hound Baying at the Sea,” 1975, solitary life reigns—no humans are depicted—amid a desolate beauty. It is harsh, natural, weathered: the result of an artist experiencing a moment. Brandywine was Wyeth’s version of Monet’s Giverny.
The America depicted in these works is not as earnest or as straightforward as critics have always complained. Andrew may have revered N.C. (some critics see homages throughout the early works), but by the time of the father’s sudden death, in 1945, when a train hit his car paused on railroad tracks, Andrew was almost thirty; and three years later the Museum of Modern Art purchased “Christina’s World”: suddenly, he was a brighter star than his old man ever envisioned.
Reputations made at an early age are more often than not harmful; the past is ever gaining. In keeping to themselves and to their particular ingrained styles, the Wyeths have fought against outside influence and inside temptation to sell out. This show is quieter and more intuitive than the blockbuster family name suggests; it gives back in small satisfactions what it takes away in denying the famous works. An artist by any other name is still a working artist.