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The Song of the Reapers, “NC” Wyeth

By Judith Ana de Madrid Johnson
Madrid and Calgary (Canada)
Photo credits: See below


Mrs. Baylis, the cleaning woman from England, comes once a week. She went through the school of hard knocks and lives close to the bone cleaning houses. My mother has long intense conversations with her over the lunch my mother provides. Mrs. Baylis is happy because she doesn’t have to clean while they talk. My mother finds her life very interesting compared to her own more affluent one.

The laundryman, Monsieur Paradis, is French Canadian. He is very proud to have given all his ten children the university education they wanted, while delivering well-to-do Anglos’ laundry. The French Quebecers in the 60’s are the underdogs because the Scottish bankers still rule in Montreal. To get ahead, English must be spoken fluently. The Church teaches religion in the French Catholic schools while the Protestants and Jews study science in its place and have more credits to get into university.

The Thyssen

The Thyssen presented the first retrospective in Europe on Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, icons of 20th-century American realism

Looking back on the life story of American painter Andrew Wyeth, featured through mid-June at Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, one is made keenly aware that the humble substance of our daily lives is often the best food for inspiration. We need explore no further afield than Mr. Paradis’ life as he stands humbly at our back door with a brown paper package of neatly ironed shirts to find truth and beauty about everyday existence!

Most people always think the grass on the other side of the fence is greener. We spend a fortune travelling to foreign lands to escape boredom and to seek fresh inspiration – different people, different cultures and “exotic” food!

The chief source of inspiration for American painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his family lay in animals, local people and nature right at home. Wyeth became almost an American legend in his lifetime. He could have lived anywhere in the world but the rough Maine coastline remained his prime residence.

"NC" at his studio with a cowboy model

“NC” at his studio with a cowboy model

You could say that Andrew Wyeth was born with a silver spoon in his mouth – in Chaddsford PA in 1917 into a brilliant artistic family. His father, “NC”, whom he worshipped, was a famous painter and illustrator. Money was not a problem for the Wyeths. Nor talent! Andrew showed promise from his earliest childhood and thrived under his father’s tutelage. He began painting at age 15.

Blacks working on local farms and locals of German origin were the subjects of Wyeth’s early portraits, not to mention the dogs and farm animals he loved. His famous father saw artistic promise in him right away. “Dear Andy”, wrote his father, “I loved your watercolours!”

“NC”, though, criticized Andrew’s too-subdued use of colour which in fact became a distinctive feature of his work.

The young Wyeth was given every opportunity to develop his talents, just as his two sisters who became painters and his brother who became a brilliant inventor. While children of affluent and successful parents often fall by the wayside in the shadow of a famous parent who often has no time for his or her children, both Andrew and his son by his wife Betsy James, whom he married when both were 18, showed solid self-discipline and positive attitudes.  They were also keenly grateful for the gifts they received from their parents.

Maybe the key here is that the Wyeths stuck to one thing: their art.

Today, we dabble in a hundred hobbies and work at numerous different jobs, always trying to find that something we specially excels at, but often unable to develop the art form we love due to the exorbitant cost of living that increasingly ignores the importance of art.

One day, “NC” set out to town in the car with his small grandson and, not hearing an approaching train, both were instantly killed.

Andrew commented after meditating – a major part of his daily routine –  and after visiting the site along the railway track where his father had died, that he suddenly saw things with “much more insight and depth”.

“Half the time,” Wyeth related, “we don’t see what is around us.”

His interest turned to exploring the texture of things, the Canada geese in V-formation overhead, tall grasses ever-present in his minutely detailed canvases, the silence of water, women on the Kuermer farm bent over hauling heavy buckets of water. These subjects he loved more than life itself.

The Wyeths also painted each other. Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946), whose paintings figure importantly in the Thyssen exhibition, at age 24, painted a large stunning portrait of his father with the finesse of a Vermeer!  While Wyeth Senior painted pastoral scenes using meticulous precision, showing every blade of grass, his son Jamie’s paintings show a fascination with “the odd and peculiar”, spooky Hallow’een scenes, a recent ( 2000’s) series of 7 seagull studies representing the Seven Deadly Sins. But both men loved the wild Maine landscape – old farm houses with wind blowing through long-gone glass panes, gray boards bleached by the sun, long grasses flowing gracefully on a current of wind., a dog sleeping contentedly by an old barn.

Adrew with George W. bush receives the Award

Andrew receives the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President George W. Bush (2007)

What is unusual though is the popularity of the subject matter! Wyeth’s paintings of unpretentious-looking farm people and derelict beach houses were exhibited in the White House in 1970. At the tender age of 20, all of his paintings had sold at the Macbeth Gallery in NYC! The MoMA exhibit featured 8 works in 1943 and the Wyeth name became a household word in USA, even reaching across the Canadian border where the Group of Seven held court. TIME MAGAZINE featured Andrew Wyeth on its cover in 1950 and named him the “most important artist”, along with Jackson Pollock.

Fame never corrupted Andrew or his son Jamie Wyeth. Both men simply painted to preserve what they strongly believed was the essence of American life: simplicity and hard work, as close to nature as possible.

A little twist to the story was Andrew Wyeth’s secret passion for a young blonde German, Helga Testorf, hired initially to look after an ailing long-time friend. He painted Helga in every imaginable position, leaving little to the imagination (sensual poses but unaffected, natural), then hid all his paintings of her in the attic where they were only found after his death.

No-one will ever know, but AW did say, “I had to go through the other things familiar to me before I had the guts to put down something fresh  (…) from the disciplinarian to the free side of myself.”

The Olson House in Maine appears in various Andrew Wyeth paintings

The Olson House in Maine appears in several Andrew Wyeth paintings, See “Night Sleeper, for instance.

So he first painted a barn, and then, added a tiny female figure in a door. Ultimately, this figure became a large study of a nude woman, graceful and serene.

Looking at the stunning work of both father and son in the large exhibition at Thyssen leaves the viewer eager to follow Voltaire’s advice in “Candide”, which was to ‘stay home and cultivate one’s garden’. To a university- age student, this seems an extremely dull prospect, but later on it begins to make sense as one fights one’s way through over-crowded streets of a foreign city, searching out inspiration away from home!

The Wyeths teach us that life’s richest gifts lie in the people, landscapes and nature right around us!

See if there’s still that documentary, expertly subtitled by Madrid firm , on the Wyeth family.


> Featured image photographed by Tom (Flickr), CC BY 2.0 Generic
> Museo Thyssen by Luis Garcia (Wikipedia), CC BY SA3.0 Unported
> “NC” Wyeth in his studio, photographer unknown, PD
> Andrew Wyeth with US President George W. Bush, PD
> Olson farmhouse by lcm1863 (Flickr), CC BY-ND 2.0
(The Olson House is is owned by the Farnsworth Art Museum and located in Cushing, ME. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the basis of the present structure was constructed in the late 1700’s and was altered to its present form in the 1870s.)