I visited The Brandywine River Museum on the last day of its “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” exhibit. Having grown up near Chadds Ford, where Wyeth lived and worked and the museum is located, I’d heard of the Wyeth family of artists, but this was my first time visiting the museum and seeing their work. Why is it that the places and figures in our own backyards are often the easiest to overlook? This was not the case for Andrew Wyeth, who painted the people and places around him. As I walked through the exhibit admiring the impeccably detailed paintings, especially the watercolors painted with dry brush (a technique I’d never heard of before), I felt an affinity for Wyeth’s haunting portraits, spooky interiors, and multiple compositions of the same houses and landscapes. There is the white farmhouse he grew up next to in Chadds Ford, the dilapidated Olson home in Cushing, Maine, where he spent summers, his own childhood and adult homes and studio, and the natural landscapes and weather in each of these places.
Wyeth was a homebody, I thought. Internationally famous, he must have traveled the world or at least been invited to, but his artistic gaze stayed close to home. He had translated the popular writing advice to “write what you know” into “paint what you know.” One exhibit card noted that Wyeth’s father N.C., a successful artist himself and Wyeth’s main teacher, taught Andrew to draw artistic inspiration from everyday surroundings and study his subjects closely. Later in his career, Wyeth tried to convey people’s personalities and other qualities through their facial expressions and the physical objects he included in portraits. This insight also applies to fiction, in which physical descriptions and carefully chosen details “show” without telling.
Fiction happens to be the medium that sparked my interest in Wyeth’s work. This summer I read Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World, a fictional re-telling of the life of Wyeth’s most famous subject and her Maine house. Christina Olson suffered from an unnamed illness that left her in pain and mostly confined to her home. So she was also a homebody, though out of circumstance. Kline’s novel suggests Christina would’ve chosen a more expansive life had she been able to.
As I summon the obstinance and courage I need to return to my own creative writing practice, I find encouragement in Andrew Wyeth’s body of work. He was an unapologetic homebody. He painted what he knew. During a period of art history when modernist painters like Jackson Pollock received much fanfare for doing things differently, Wyeth painted realistic images that some critics derided as sentimental. But if you look closely, you can see the technical mastery he possessed and you realize that these spooky, sometimes desolate images are anything but cloying.