Adrew Wyeth – Simple yet Complicated Modern American Painter is Dead at 91

We have all seen dozens of images from the three generation of Wyeth painters. The Elder, N.C. Wyeth, helped shape my childhood memories with his realistic illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Treasure Island and others. As I grew older Andrew took center stage for me and he pushed his father’s style a little further. Andrew wanted to go beyond being known as “an illustrator” and in my humble opinion succeeded. His father allowed him to move through phases and then pull back again, which gave him courage and experience. Andrew had strong academic training but did not allow that to dominate his body of work, which is quite fluid.

Snow Flurries, 1953, Tempera 37ΒΌ x 48 in.

In the book, The Two World of Andrew Wyeth: A Conversation with Andrew Wyeth by Thomas Hoving, they discuss Snow Flurries painted in 1953. The subject is a very simple hill that Andrew walked nearly everyday which makes it extremely difficult to paint, yet a wonderful challenge. On the surface it appears to be a simple work, but the more you inspect it, the more details emerge. Mr. Wyeth describes this paradox in the interview.

I don’t agree with the theory that simplicity means lack of complexity. I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be. I’ve found that some of the simplest people are very profound and actually very complex… Well actually, this picture is to me a whole lifetime. It summarizes an awful lot. That’s really what interests me. What I was after is what you get after sugaring off maple sugar from the maple tree. You keep boiling it down until you have the essence of purity. That is what I was after. I’m not saying it’s all that pure or good, but I did want it be be all the hills but yet a very definite hill

Mr. Wyeth elected to sell many of his works in a massive deal with a Japanese investor, and live the rest of his life outside the public eye. His works can be found in great museums all over the world. He’s gone now, which always causes me to seek out the work, knowing there will be no more.

House at Dusk: A Study

Only the top floor of the stone apartment building is revealed in Hopper’s House at Dusk. Our eye traverses past each window and quickly we notice a woman, alone of course, sitting on a bright red chair looking down. Perhaps she is reading a book or stroking a newly acquired kitten. You get the feeling that she has spent all day in her apartment and from time to time glances up and out through her window to the vista beyond. Her chair is strategically positioned to allow her that view as well as of her small space where she lives. There is no television, only a radio.

The limestone structure is Georgian in style, exhibiting a formal arrangement of parts employing a symmetrical composition, enriched with classical detail. It’s ringed in dental molding and framed with large quoins at each corner. The exterior finish is smooth, not course ashlar, and the sash windows are narrow and long and vertically separated from the ones below with a decorative inset. Hopper has removed the panes of glass dividers frequently seen in windows of this architecture style, as if plucking companions from the lives of those still occupying the rooms. This is yet another signal of aloneness which permeates his body of work. No one else can be seen through the windows, either they have not yet returned home from their daily work ritual, or are positioned more in the center of their apartments.

The chimneys rise to equal heights but varying widths above the roof, and are perfectly aligned with the windows or wall columns beneath them. Hopper loves his symmetry. They reflect the dental ribbon and their stark contrast against the dark clump of trees resembles teeth. No smoke can be seen, which means there are no fires in the hearths beneath these stone stacks.

The perspective in which Hopper has painted the structure combined with how the molding juts out at the roof line causes the building to be seen as a trapezoid, not a rectangle. The sharply and probably somewhat steep steps off to the right intersect the building exactly at the inset space separating the top two floors. This connects the house with the preserve of trees that dominates the middle layer of the painting. The angle of the steps means it’s a completely different world beyond those trees. There is no one on the steps and although we can’t see much of the grounds behind the building or off the canvas to the right, we know for certain no children are pushing their play time as the sun sets. No young lovers are lounging on a blanket enjoying each other’s company. There is nothing there.

A lone street lamp in the lower right hand corner of the canvas echoes the simple buffet lamp with a classic, pleated, empire shade in the top floor apartment. These two lamps are the only overt light sources revealed. However, since the front of the building is well illuminated and we can see a shadow on the third chimney from the left, it means other street lamps exist.

The thick grove of trees immediately behind the house serves as a lush, green fence, completely detaching the life of the occupants of this building from what lies beyond. The structure is most likely on the outskirts of a bustling urban area, which by contrast is rich in sight and sound and dialog.

That amazing, signature Hopper light permeates the entire canvas. How much of it is that ever-changing dusk light and how much of it is coming from the city beyond, waking up to its evening? Hopper always keeps us guessing about the stories, but never forgets to provide us with perfect light. The light gives me everything I need.

There was a Hopper show at The Art Institute of Chicago in the spring of 2008. You can read my thoughts on that exhibition here.