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Auction Name: 2021 May 7 American Art Signature Auction - Dallas
Lot Number: 67152
Shortcut to Lot: HA.com/8043-67152
Andrew Newell Wyeth (American, 1917-2009)St. George
Watercolor on paper
21-7/8 x 29-3/4 inches (55.6 x 75.6 cm) (sheet)
Signed lower left: Andrew Wyeth
Private collection, Metairie, Louisiana;
Private collection, Washington D.C., acquired circa 2006.
It is perhaps curious that Andrew Wyeth, a household-name artist revered in every quadrant of the U.S. and even as far away as Japan, concentrated his life and work in two remote rural areas: Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine. For over seven decades, Wyeth, "the people's painter," created intensely personal, exquisitely rendered watercolors and tempera paintings of the people and landscapes surrounding his family homesteads. Where Chadds Ford, his birth and death place, signified farming and family history, ancient stone walls, and loamy forests, coastal Maine, with its fishermen and rustic cottages, conjured up for him images of both ruggedness and impermanence shaped by the sea. He described the allure of Maine in a letter to his parents in 1945:
"This Maine country is such a jump from the rich, full rolling hills of Pennsylvania. An entirely different atmosphere. The cold bleak mood is strong on me. I feel as if I were in a dream. Each place that I had a connection with in the past stands alone in this lonely wild of land and sea. I am drawn to them with a strange feeling of love and hate which burns inside me. These feelings I can't express in words. Perhaps they will show in some other way." (R. Merryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Spoken Self-Portrait
, Washington, D.C., 2013, p. 66)
Wyeth's love affair with Maine, which he "showed" in the "way" of his art, ignited as a child and shone brightly his entire career. In 1920, his parents, Carol and the famous illustrator N.C., decided to summer in Port Clyde on the St. George Peninsula, and purchased a sea captain's house, dubbed "Eight Bells" after a Winslow Homer painting. As a teenager, Wyeth palled around with a local fisherman's son, Walt Anderson, digging for clams, trapping lobsters, and rowing around tiny offshore islands in an old dory. Wyeth carried a watercolor set with him on these expeditions and began deftly executing Homer-inspired, vibrant seascapes, his prodigious talent resulting in a blockbuster solo exhibition in 1937, at age 20, at the prestigious William Macbeth Gallery in New York.
Two years later, Wyeth's ties to Maine were further reinforced when he met Betsy Merle James, a native of Cushing, soon to become his lifelong spouse, muse, archivist, promoter, and business manager. It was Betsy who introduced her husband to her childhood friend Christina Olson, the subject of Wyeth's most famous painting, Christina's World
, and the inspiration behind hundreds of paintings of the modest Olson home. An avid antique collector and home renovator, Betsy liked to explore architecture throughout the area, and in this process, also acquainted Andrew with other subjects, such as the Finnish farmer George Erickson and his daughter, Siri. While Wyeth maintained his studio in Port Clyde on the mainland, he lived on weekends in the various homes that Betsy lovingly restored in Cushing and on Southern, Allen, and Benner Islands. Wyeth's last painting before he died, Goodbye
, from 2008, poignantly features a lone white house--a former sail loft that Betsy had restored--perched on a hill, a sailboat on the bay below gliding out of the picture plane.
Reminiscent of Goodbye
, the present undated work, St. George
, depicts one of the historic architectural landmarks of coastal Maine, the Finnish Congregational Church and Parsonage on St. George Road in South Thomaston, eight miles from Cushing. With its simple frame structure, gabled roof and bell tower, and clapboard siding, the church, built in 1921, and the adjacent parsonage added in 1925, exemplified vernacular Finnish-American architecture. As the first church in Maine designed specifically for the Finnish community, the structure also represented the qualities of this growing immigrant community: hardworking, no-frills, and stalwart. Wyeth also painted the exterior of the church in Finntown
, and its unembellished interior in Off at Sea
Like his favorite artist, Edward Hopper, Wyeth considered his paintings of architecture, interiors, and household objects as "things animated by the lives that touched them," what the art historian Patricia Junker calls "portraits in absentia." (P. Junker and A. Lewis, ed., Andrew Wyeth in Retrospect
, New Haven, 2017, p. 19) When describing his paintings of houses, Wyeth frequently discussed the people associated with them. For example, he wrote of Christina Olson's house, built by her Swedish sailor father: "That place to me is almost--that big building sitting up there--fourteen rooms--almost like a tombstone of the men lost at sea--the ghosts of lost sailors. Men [who] wore one gold earring. . . . To me there's a haunting feeling of people coming back to this place." (Merryman, p. 20)
Likewise, St. George
serves as a composite portrait of the Swedish-Finnish Maine locals whom Wyeth knew personally: his boyhood friend Walt Anderson, memorialized as a teen in Young Swede
and as a lobster trapper in Night Hauling
; Christina Olson of Christina's World;
the salty fisherman Henry Teel, symbolized as a battered skiff in Teel's Island;
and his farmer neighbor George Erickson, subject of The Finn
. In these folks, Wyeth saw elemental values, quiet stoicism, connection to nature, mortality, and Maine's mythical past, which he translated into St. George
as isolated buildings rooted in the earth beneath an overcast sky. His musings about Cushing intertwined people and place, capturing the present work to a T:
"Betsy and I bought five acres in Cushing from Betsy's father and built a house next to the Saint George River. I thrive on nothingness, and Cushing is one of those things that almost isn't. I feel the personal side, the inner introspective side. Basic houses perched on the land, might blow away. The farms are secluded . . . fields like the sea. Quietness--like country people buried underground sleeping. A quiet, gentle existence. Silence. . . . Lonely place. Removed. Seamen who had violent lives--gentlemen retired to till the soil in a potato patch. Nobody pays attention, people apart but friendly, time standing still right there, lurking loss and abandonment." (Merryman, p.76)
The preeminent Wyeth scholar, Wanda Corn, argues that it is this very symbolic, evocative quality of Wyeth's work that elevates it above strict realism. Contrary to New York critics of the 1960s who dismissed his representational paintings as anti-modern, sentimental illustrations appealing to conservative audiences, Corn championed Wyeth as a master practitioner of "metaphoric realism"--"heightening the ordinary and the routine in order to reveal qualities of fundamental human existence." (D. Cateforis, ed., Rethinking Andrew Wyeth,
Berkeley, 2014, p. x) Developing as an artist during the 1930s and '40s, at the crossroads of American regionalism and surrealism, Wyeth, like Edward Hopper, Walker Evans, and Charles Burchfield, manipulated compositions of everyday scenes and objects in order to effect an emotional response of empathy: "In Wyeth's case, he often did this using 'camera vision'--taking unusual angles, isolating objects or people, making the world stand still." (Cateforis, p. 69) According to Corn, "Wyeth delivers many of the same existentialist and psychological experiences as an abstract artist [like Mark Rothko], but by virtue of his exquisite realism, his art is much easier to access; his art has the capacity of moving visitors with a variety of sensibilities and levels of visual sophistication." (Cateforis, p. 70)
In St. George
, Wyeth employs a host of formal techniques to create an evocative mood, the byproduct of metaphoric realism. The church and parsonage, depicted high on the horizon, from a worm's-eye perspective, seem at once monumental and abandoned, even forlorn in their physical detachment from one another. Through the church's windows--a favorite Wyeth subject--one can see shadows and the reflection of another window, but no humans or interior furnishings, producing sensations of eeriness and emptiness. While the earth-toned palette of browns, greys, and whites stills the scene like a black-and-white photograph, Wyeth's gestural application of watercolor in the grassy field--wildly scumbled brushwork with occasional etched lines--visually recalls his description of "secluded farms [with] country people buried underground sleeping." In St. George
, the land and the structures are
the people of coastal Maine, who in their strength, community, hardships, and eventual death, are, in turn, all of humanity. Wyeth would have wanted us to experience St. George
in this way: "So I put a lot of things into my work which are VERY personal to me. So how can the public feel these things? I think most people get to my work through the back door. They're attracted by the realism and they sense the emotion and the abstraction--and eventually, I hope, they get their OWN powerful emotion." (Merryman, p. 18)
We are grateful for the generous assistance of Mary Adam Landa, Wyeth Collection Manager, The Office of Andrew Wyeth LLC, for providing valuable information from the Wyeth archives, indispensable to the cataloguing of this lot, which will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné
of the artist's work.
Condition report available upon request.
Framed Dimensions 33 X 40.5 Inches
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