Art: Step by step into Andrew Wyeth's legacy

A pencil-drawing study for Andrew Wyeth's "Ides of March," also the title of the exhibition at Brandywine River Museum that explores the artist's method and inspiration. For instance, the dog, Nell, is Wyeth's. The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection
A pencil-drawing study for Andrew Wyeth's "Ides of March," also the title of the exhibition at Brandywine River Museum that explores the artist's method and inspiration. For instance, the dog, Nell, is Wyeth's. The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection

Brandywine River Museum show, exploring the artist's painstaking method, is among events leading to a major celebration in 2017.

Posted: March 31, 2013

Andrew Wyeth died four years ago at 91; in another four years, the centennial of his birth will bring forth a major retrospective exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum, designed not only to commemorate his remarkable career, but also to reevaluate it.

The museum has set in motion a five-year sequence of events to set the stage for the centennial celebration in 2017.

It wants these events to accomplish two things - introduce Wyeth and the other artists in his family to a new, younger audience, and encourage art historians to reconsider what the Wyeth artists accomplished.

The museum also plans to refresh and deepen the Andrew Wyeth experience for visitors who may be generally familiar with his work, but perhaps haven't looked at his pictures closely or considered their sources.

For instance, museum staff have begun to think about how to more effectively convey the "energy and creativity that infused the house and property" at the Kuerner farm, in the words of museum director Thomas Padon. The farm was one of Andrew's primary sources of imagery.

As visitors to the Brandywine's current exhibition, "Ides of March," discover, his work is intensely personal, to the point where individual images can seem either prosaic or enigmatic if the intimacy is hidden.

Viewers also learn - for this is the exhibition's purpose - that Wyeth was very much an Old-Master-style craftsman for whom meticulous preparation and painstaking technical facility were intrinsic to his art. This manner of working is so rare today as to seem like a historical anomaly.

"Ides of March" is the first exhibition, and the second event, in the prelude to the centennial. (The first was the opening to the public last year of Wyeth's studio, just south of the museum.)

The subtitle, "The Making of a Masterpiece," identifies it as a common exhibition type. A major painting, in this case the 1974 tempera Ides of March, is displayed with more than 30 preparatory studies and related works as a way of explaining the artist's inspiration and working method.

Ides of March is an especially apt choice for such an exercise. Privately owned, it has rarely been exhibited in this country. It yields readily to compositional analysis in a way that reveals how meticulous Wyeth was about achieving perfect visual balance and provocative symbolism.

Most important, I think, it emphasizes how adept he is at concealing what each subject meant to him. This painting reminds us that he typically hides as much as, or more than, he reveals, an odd posture for a so-called realist.

Ides of March depicts a large dog lying in front of a stone fireplace whose stygian interior is demarcated by a few glowing embers and iron cooking tools hanging at the left.

We learn that the dog, Nell, is Wyeth's, and that the fireplace is in his Chadds Ford house. The dog is relaxed but not sleeping, and lovingly defined, down to the bristles on his muzzle.

The studies, mostly pencil drawings but including a few watercolors, are mainly details - the dog and the various iron cooking implements and fireplace accessories.

The studies represent only about half the number that Wyeth made for this picture, which was far more than he typically made for a major painting. This tells us that Ides of March, like the more familiar Groundhog Day in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was an especially meaningful subject for him.

Absent its backstory, it doesn't suggest to a casual viewer what he or she should extract from it in terms of narrative, symbolism, or emotional resonance - unless, like the artist, that viewer loves dogs.

A formal analysis, which curator Virginia O'Hara offers in the exhibition catalog, confirms Wyeth's intense emotional investment in this image.

The picture is a paragon of equipoise, both in terms of how spaces are precisely calibrated and how the illuminated passages, particularly the body of the dog and the left face of the fireplace, play against the darker ones. Wyeth was aiming for an ideal, and he achieved it.

Ides of March encourages the type of forensic examination of Wyeth's art that it deserves. If nothing else, the exhibition should demonstrate that his paintings are not to be glossed over. If they fail to communicate, it's because they're too personally subliminal for the public to penetrate.

Not all the events in the centennial run-up involve Andrew, and not all are being initiated by the Chadds Ford museum.

For instance, on June 15, the museum will open an exhibition organized by the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine called "Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Monhegan," including work by Andrew's son. The show will be enlarged by 17 loans selected by Brandywine curator Amanda Burdan.

In early May 2014, the National Gallery of Art will present "Looking Out, Looking In," a show about Andrew Wyeth's use of windows as motifs and metaphors. In connection with this show, the Gallery and Brandywine are discussing cosponsorship of a two-day meeting of American scholars to discuss Wyeth's art.

A Jamie Wyeth retrospective is projected for 2015 in Chadds Ford, to be followed the next year by a focused theme show for Andrew's sister, Carolyn.

By the time Andrew's retrospective goes up in 2017, we'll all be either Wyethed out or more informed about and appreciative of the clan's contribution to American art.


Art: One Wyeth, Up Close

"Ides of March:

The Making of a Masterpiece" continues at the Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford, through May 19. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $12 general, $8 for seniors, and $6 for students and visitors age 6 through 12. Free Sundays

until noon. Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywine

museum.org.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.


"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear on alternating Sundays.

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