Wyeth at the National Gallery

After visiting Wyeth’s paintings at the Farnsworth in Maine this summer, I knew I wanted to make it down to the National Gallery to see the “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” exhibit.  I finally made it down to DC on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago.

The exhibit is centered around Wyeth’s depiction of windows and inspired by the museum’s recent acquisition of Wind from the Sea.

Wyeth - Window

I found, as I had at the Farnsworth, that the paintings carry a depth in person that muddies in reproductions.  The National Gallery actually has a pretty nice digital image of Wind from the Sea, but even that doesn’t quite convey the delicacy and flight of those curtains, and the way the landscape mutes and shifts between the open window and the gauzed lace.

Wyeth - Wisteria

It was interesting to see Wyeth’s paintings from Maine and Brandywine all mixed together in one gallery space.  He is a painter whose work seems so anchored in place — so deeply tied to particular atmospheres and textures.  Wyeth talked about his habit of walking and its role in his life as an artist.  That connection to landscape feels intrinsic, also, in the finished paintings.  Seeing his work in Maine — in that old white church behind the Farnsworth — felt like a means of immersing more deeply in place.

At the National Gallery, I lost some of that deep-seated sense of connection, of immediacy.  In a way, though, freeing the paintings from place allowed me to understand them differently: to acquire a more overarching, canonical sense of Wyeth as an artist.  Which may be one of the more important legacies of this exhibit.  So often during his lifetime, Wyeth’s work was critically underappreciated in an era of radical redefinitions of visual art.  “Looking Out, Looking In” reclaims the bold invention of Wyeth’s oevure, and calls on the contemporary viewer to reconsider the impact of his work.

Wyeth - Frostbitten

If you haven’t yet been to see it, “Looking Out, Looking In” is on view at the National Gallery through November 30.

Wyeth

One day when I was in Maine, I went up to Rockland to see the Farnsworth Art Museum.  By pure luck I happened to make this trip the day the museum stayed open late.  Which meant that I got to explore the museum’s main building at leisure, take a break for lobster, and then head back over to the museum again.

Andrew Wyeth -- In Her Room

The Farnsworth has a number of good exhibits and collections — including an interesting special exhibit on Shaker design — but its collection of Wyeth paintings is really the heart of this museum.  I’ve known Andrew Wyeth’s work tangentially over the years, but don’t know that I gave his paintings as much thought as I might have.  In person I found his work deeply compelling.  There’s such a subtlety in his brushwork, a patina that requires in-person viewing to fully understand.

The museum also does a great job contextualizing Wyeth’s work, both through its placement in galleries and special exhibits, and through thoughtful interpretive plaques.  I especially appreciated reading Wyeth’s reflections on his own creative process, which struck me as grounded and generous.  On his use of tempera, he wrote:

 “I love the quality of the colors: the earths, the terra verde, the ochers, the Indian reds, and the blue-reds. They aren’t artificial. I like to pick the colors up and hold them in my fingers. Tempera is something with which I build — like building in great layers the way the earth was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness.”

When I got to the Farnsworth’s Wyeth Center, a satellite gallery located in a repurposed old church across the street, I was the sole remaining visitor for the museum’s last hour.  Which meant that I had the galleries — and a small group of dedicated exhibit docents — to myself for a little while.  It was helpful to learn more about the entire Wyeth family — work by all of whom was on display — and to have long, solitary moments in front of paintings like In Her Room.

Part of what appeals to me so much about the Farnsworth’s Wyeth paintings is their predominantly Maine context.  The light and coloration and portraits of lobstermen resonate with me.  Perhaps in part because of my own long and early connection to that landscape.  But there’s also something deeply meditative about the experience of these paintings.  After leaving the museum, I walked along the long stone breakwater, out into the dimming night.  Local men were walking barefoot along the rocks to fish, rain was coming.  It felt like the space I needed to digest these paintings, this experience of place.

Wyeth’s reflections about the creative process are so often true across form and genre.  “I dream a lot,” he wrote.  “I do more painting when I’m not painting.  It’s in the subconscious.”  So true of writing, too.

 
p.s. For those of you not able to get to the Farnsworth, the National Gallery also has a special exhibit of Andrew Wyeth’s window paintings titled Looking Out, Looking In, on view through November 30.  I’m so looking forward to stopping in DC to see it.