The name Wyeth is almost a twentieth-century icon in American Art. Through three generations the name has been synonymous with art in the town of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Beginning with the work of N.C. Wyeth's illustrations of gallant knights and ladies fair in children's books during the first decades of this century through the delicate, lonely work of his son, Andrew Wyeth, to the expressively realistic portraits of his son, Jamie Wyeth, there is an art that is thicker than water or blood. It is an entire "school" of art referred to as the Brandywine School, and a spacious museum at Chadds Ford dedicated to preserving it.
Critics have scorned the work of both N.C. Wyeth and his son as empty nostalgia, cold and desolate, hard and unfeeling. Perhaps even worse, they've largely ignored the work of Jamie Wyeth, the 51-year-old heir to the family art dynasty. The public on the other hand loves them all. Though N.C. Wyeth was primarily known as an illustrator, Andrew, who literally grew up in his father's studio, came by his success and fame in the more traditional way starting with a first show in 1937 that sold out and continuing with the painting Christina's World that won him fame in 1948. More recently, the secret Helga Testorf paintings of his long-time mistress brought him fame of another kind.
The work of Jamie Wyeth, while totally different in style, owes much to his father's choice of subject matter even though Jamie claims to have been more influenced by his grandfather’s work. Jamie's portraits have included a posthumous painting of John F. Kennedy commissioned by Jackie in 1965, as well as such celebrities as Andy Warhol, Arnold Schwartzenegger, and Rudolf Nureyev. Among the not so celebrated are portraits of pot-bellied pigs, Black Angus cows, vultures, his wife, Phyllis, and bales of hay. At the opening of a juxtaposing work of grandfather and grandson, an elderly woman cornered Jamie and raved over how much she'd enjoyed his illustrations in such books as Treasure Island and Robin Hood when she was growing up. Rather than correct her mistake, the 51-year-old junior Wyeth thanked her for a man he'd never met. His grandfather died the year before he was born.
contributed by Lane, Jim
12 February 1998