American painter Andrew Wyeth dies at 91

Andrew Wyeth receiving the National Medal of Arts, November 15, 2007, in Washington, DC. Image courtesy National Endowment for the Arts.

Andrew Wyeth receiving the National Medal of Arts, November 15, 2007, in Washington, DC. Image courtesy National Endowment for the Arts.

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Artist Andrew Wyeth, who portrayed the hidden melancholy of the people and landscapes of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley and coastal Maine in works such as Christina’s World, died early Friday. He was 91. Wyeth died in his sleep at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Chadds Ford, according to Jim Duff, director of the Brandywine River Museum.

The son of famed painter and book illustrator N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth gained wealth, acclaim and tremendous popularity on his own. But he chafed under criticism from some experts who regarded him as a facile realist, not an artist but merely an illustrator.

“He was a man of extraordinary perception, and that perception was found in his thousands of images – many, many of them iconic,” Duff said Friday in an interview. “He highly valued the natural world, the historical objects of this world as they exist in the present and strong-willed people.”

A Wyeth retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2006 drew more than 175,000 visitors in 15 1/2 weeks, the highest-ever attendance at the museum for a living artist. The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, a converted 19th-century grist mill, includes hundreds of works by three generations of Wyeths.

It was in Maine that Wyeth found the subject for Christina’s World, his best-known painting. And it was in Pennsylvania that he met Helga Testorf, a German-born neighbor in his native Chadds Ford who became the subject of the intimate portraits that brought him millions of dollars and a wave of public attention in 1986.

The Helga paintings, many of them full-figure nudes, came with a whiff of scandal: Wyeth said he had not even told his wife, Betsy, about the more than 200 paintings and sketches until he had completed them in 1985.

Wyeth’s world was as limited in scale, and as rich in associations, as Christina’s World, which shows a disabled woman looking up a grassy rise toward her farm home, her face tantalizingly unseen.

“Really, I think one’s art goes only as far and as deep as your love goes,” Wyeth said in a Life magazine interview in 1965.

Wyeth was a secretive man who spent hours tramping the countryside alone. He painted many portraits, working several times with favorite subjects, but said he disliked having someone else watching him paint.

Much of Wyeth’s work had a melancholy feel – aging people and brown, dead plants – but he chose to describe his work as “thoughtful.”

“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there,” he once said. “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.’

“I think anything like that – which is contemplative, silent, shows a person alone – people always feel is sad. Is it because we’ve lost the art of being alone?”

Wyeth remained active in recent years and President George W. Bush presented him with a National Medal of the Arts in 2007. But his granddaughter, Victoria Wyeth, told The Associated Press in 2008 that he no longer gave interviews. “He says, ‘Vic, everything I have to say is on the walls,'” she said.

Wyeth was born July 12, 1917, in Chadds Ford, the youngest of N.C. Wyeth’s five children. One of his sisters, Henriette, who died in 1997, also became an artist of some note, and one of his two sons, Jamie, became a noted painter. His other son, Nicholas, became an art dealer.

Wyeth is survived by his wife and two sons. Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service is being planned at the Brandywine River Museum.
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Associated Press Writer JoAnn Loviglio contributed to this report.
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On the Net:
Brandywine River Museum: http://www.brandywinemuseum.org

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