Mr. Wyeth sketched, painted and drew the people and places of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River Valley and the rugged Maine coastal region near Cushing, where he had lived all his life. He died at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Chadds Ford, according to Hillary Holland, a spokeswoman for the Brandywine River Museum, the AP reported.
His artistry was of fields and hillsides, wildlife, sawmills, springhouses, farmhands, farm tools, fixtures and furniture. It was symbolic and paradoxical, expressing tranquillity and turbulence, tenderness and rigor, cruelty and compassion. Some of it included such discordant details as hanging animal carcasses, rifles, hunters, meat hooks, peeling paint, cracked ceilings, fallen and sharply sawed or broken logs that conveyed subliminal suggestions of violence and decay, and a sense of loss.
One of the most widely recognized and highly priced American artists of his era, Mr. Wyeth was probably best known for his 1948 painting, “Christina’s World,” which shows a young crippled woman in a pink dress crawling across a brown field toward a bleak and distant farmhouse. In its degree of familiarity, this picture was once compared with the portrait of George Washington that appears on the $1 bill.
In the 1980s, Mr. Wyeth was the subject of an intense media spotlight for his “Helga” series of 45 paintings and 200 sketches. These pictures, many of them nudes, were the product of hundreds of modeling sessions with a Chadds Ford neighbor, Helga Testorf, over a 15-year period. No one else, not even Mr. Wyeth’s wife, had previously known about them, and their disclosure to the public was arguably the art event of the decade.
A household name in the national artistic community since the middle years of the 20th century, Mr. Wyeth rose to prominence in the same period in which the abstract expressionist painters of the New York School were establishing their mark as the mainstream artists of the era.
His work was different. The abstract expressionists did non-representational compositions, characterized by what they said was a spontaneous and self-expressive application of paint. They often worked in bright and flowing colors with flamboyant brush strokes.
Mr. Wyeth painted in pale colors, lighter shades of brown, red, yellow and black, and the shapes and objects in his pictures were concrete and easily recognizable. Houses looked like houses and people looked like people. He favored fall and winter landscapes, which he believed gave the impression of a deeper and unarticulated meaning; his messages were indirectly conveyed. Rarely did he speak or communicate with others in his profession, and in his personal life he tended to be reclusive.
As an artist he was generally considered a realist, but he never accepted that characterization. “In the art world today, I’m so conservative I’m radical. Most painters don’t care for me. I’m strange to them,” he said in a 1965 interview with Richard Meryman for Life magazine. “A lot of people say I’ve brought realism back. They try to tie me up with Eakins and Winslow Homer. To my mind they are mistaken. I honestly consider myself an abstractionist. Eakins’ figures actually breathe in the frame. My people, my objects breathe in a different way; there’s another core—an excitement that’s definitely abstract.”
To many critics, Mr. Wyeth was out of touch with the primary artistic trends of his time, and the quality of his work failed to merit his popularity with the general public. Nor did it justify the prices people were willing to pay—a collection of Wyeth works including several of the Helga paintings brought $40 million in a 1989 sale.
“Compared to master draftsmen, Wyeth cannot draw,” wrote Washington Post art critic Paul Richard in a 1987 review of an exhibition of the Helga paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. New York’s Village Voice newspaper called Mr. Wyeth’s art “formulaic stuff, not very effective even as institutional realism . . .”
The prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York refused even to display the Helga paintings. “We had an opportunity to show the Helga series. We quite pointedly and as a conscious decision declined to do so,” said museum director Philippe de Montebello in 1987.
And so turns the vicious world of art criticism. Note the tone of this obituary, also a product of the Washington Post.