When we visited the area we would stay with my grandparents, whose living room had a large Andrew Wyeth tempera hanging over the fireplace. The composition, called “The Woodshed,” was of two dead crows nailed by their feet to a shed. Their inky black feathers fanned out against the wood siding and their stiff, curled claws were depicted with such realism that it made you imagine what it would feel like if one were to come alive and scratch your skin. As a child I was terrified of the painting, but when I got older I came to appreciate its stark reality and the abstract quality of those jet-black wings pulled open by gravity.
I did not get to know Andrew Wyeth personally until many years later when I somewhat nervously interviewed him while researching a book on his brother-in-law, the painter John McCoy. Who was I to be interviewing this international art icon, who arrived dressed like a character straight out of a classic film? His trim figure was wrapped in black leggings and a handsome fitted jacket; a scarf twirled about his neck framed his wonderfully lined face and twinkling blue eyes. What immediately struck me was his generosity of spirit, apparent by his desire to put me at ease. In that hour he revealed a side of himself that I had not anticipated. Instead of the guarded, serious artist many critics had labeled as an outsider, I found a gregarious, unpretentious, animated individual with a magnetic personality.
I never understood critics’ harsh judgments of Andrew Wyeth. He painted the world he knew and his work resonated with truth. Years later we crossed paths again when I was making The Way Back: A Portrait of George A. Weymouth, a documentary film devoted to his great friend George “Frolic” Weymouth who had founded the Brandywine River Conservancy and Museum. Once again, he was graciously welcoming and he agreed to be interviewed for the film. Though he was some years older, the twinkle in those incredible blue eyes had not diminished. He was still painting every day, still finding subjects that excited him.
When we heard that Andy had died, my husband and I travelled from Chicago to Chadds Ford for the memorial exhibition of his works at the Brandywine River Museum. We got up early to beat the crowds, but when we arrived, there was already a long line of visitors patiently standing in the freezing weather waiting to get in. By the end of the day, 4,000 people would pass through the galleries. The Museum of Modern Art had agreed to loan “Christina’s World,” his most famous work, for two days, and I was eager to see it. When we finally entered the gallery with the painting before us, it was even more powerful than my memory of it. Upon turning a corner, there were my two old friends, the crows, wings spread out, still as inky black as a Japanese brush painting, daring us to take a closer look. (My grandfather, C. Porter Schutt, bequeathed the painting to the museum in 1995.)
No one can refute Andrew Wyeth’s technical virtuosity. Even those who try to label him can never diminish his brilliant works, executed with an eye for detail that is unmatched in the 20th century. When I look at his paintings, I see a lively man of great emotion who had tremendous curiosity about his subject matter. Employing the discipline of an old master, Andrew Wyeth successfully shared his unique vision with the world. That vision, often labeled as realism, reflected who he was: a complex painter who was both the salt of the earth and an other-worldly creature.
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