Works of art by three generations of the iconic Wyeth family are on display at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont.
“Vertigo is the key to understanding the Wyeths,” Denenberg tells Young. “All three generations of Wyeths — N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth — like to knock you off your pins a little bit to make you dizzy. And they do this by employing unusual perspective, extreme perspective, in their paintings — paintings that look up, look down, in and out of odd spaces.”
Details On The Slideshow Images
Descriptions provided by Thomas Denenberg & Joyce Hill Stoner, curators of the “Wyeth Vertigo” exhibit at the Shelburne Museum.
Tempera on masonite
Museum Purchase, From the Collection of Maxim Karolik, 1961-186.6
A product of Wyeth’s interest in the timelessness of the natural world, Soaring is also a frightening indictment of modern life. Initially conceived during World War II and completed as Cold War tensions permeated American life, the painting casts a Pennsylvania farm as vulnerable, almost insignificant. The circling turkey buzzards not only create a vertiginous scene, but they also serve as forbidding avatars for a generation newly accustomed to images of bombers in flight and mortal threats from above. Soaring proved to be one of Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s last acquisitions before her death in 1960 and, in the years since, has become an icon of American painting.
The Headlands of Monhegan, Maine, 2007
Oil on canvas
Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection
Jamie Wyeth once wrote “I hate art colonies and wouldn’t be caught dead working on one.” Monhegan, however, is an exception, a storied island that has attracted painters for generations and where Wyeth has owned a house for decades. He avoids the tourist crowds by leaving the island in the summer and taking up residence again in the “off season.” As one of the few painters familiar with Monhegan in late October, Jamie is perhaps uniquely equipped to conjure a vision of Halloween pumpkins tumbling off the cliffs of the rugged island.
Oil on panel
Private Collector, New Hope, Pennsylvania
Comet reminds us that a “bird’s eye view” is not always from the air. The painting depicts a lighthouse, specifically the light on Jamie Wyeth’s Southern Island, from the perspective of a nesting seagull. Sunlight illuminates the house from behind and casts the façade in shadow, giving the building a looming, ominous character that is underscored by the low vantage point. Wyeth frequently paints his island home and often employs gulls as surrogates, imbuing the birds with human motivations and emotions.
N. C. Wyeth
Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943
Egg tempera on panel
Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Bequest of Elizabeth B. Noyce, 1996.38.63
In Dark Harbor Fishermen, N. C. Wyeth invites the viewer to look down on a dory brimming with bait fish as if standing on a dock. Three other boats provide an edgy geometric frame while a flock of gulls wheeling in flight activate and agitate the scene. Wyeth, one of the nation’s foremost illustrators, well knew how to capture the eye and tell a timeless story — in this case, the age-old narrative of taking sustenance from the sea.
Deep Cove Lobster Man, 1938
Oil on gessoed board (Renaissance Panel)
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Joseph E. Temple Fund
N. C. Wyeth revered the Maine painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910). In fact, when Wyeth purchased a home for himself and his family in Port Clyde, Maine in 1920, he christened the property “Eight Bells” in honor of a famous Homer painting. Deep Cove Lobster Man demonstrates the debt Wyeth owed to Homer in his exploration of the people and customs of the rugged Maine coast.
N. C. Wyeth
Just as the Baby’s Feet Cleared the Ground, 1923
Oil on canvas
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Gift of Carolyn Wyeth, 1976.13
Just as the Baby’s Feet Cleared the Ground is an archetype of the muscular style that made N. C. Wyeth critical to American visual culture in the opening decades of the 20th century. The foremost illustrator of juvenile literature and popular tales, Wyeth frequently employed exaggerated perspective in the service of narrative — a trait that he passed along to his son and his grandson. This painting initially served as an illustration for a story in Hearst’s Magazine, a frequent venue for Wyeth’s art.
Portrait of a Vulture, 1997
Combined media on toned woven paper
Portrait of a Vulture illuminates the artistic continuities and differences in the Wyeth family. As in his father’s painting, Soaring, Wyeth depicts a flock of vultures flying over a landscape, but has painted it on a smaller scale with a cropped composition, creating a more intimate and therefore more disconcerting scene. He also places greater emphasis on the vulture’s head in the foreground, emphasizing an interest in animal portraiture.
Oil on canvas
Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection
Jamie Wyeth’s Spindrift is a highly personal narrative. Often considered a response to his father’s work, Soaring, Spindrift accentuates the vulnerability of an American home, in this instance, the own artist’s house at Southern Island Light. The perceived threat this time, however, is not a flock of circling vultures, but the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean crashing against the island, emphasizing Wyeth’s interest in the age-old interaction between man and nature.
N. C. Wyeth
The Drowning, 1936
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Brandywine River Museum, Bequest of Carolyn Wyeth, 1996
Reminiscent of the great dory paintings of Winslow Homer (1836-1910) from the mid-1880s, in The Drowning, Wyeth chose to paint a mystery. Even without the explicit title, the empty craft proximate to the rocky island speaks volumes about the danger of life along the Maine coast. A life has been lost, but the viewer is given few clues to the dory owner’s identity. Once again, Wyeth employs a distorted bird’s eye view to capture the drama of a tragic scene — a theme that his son and grandson would explore repeatedly in the course of their careers.
The Hunter, 1943
Tempera on Masonite
Lent by the Toledo Museum of Art; Elizabeth C. Mau Bequest Fund
Originally painted as a cover for The Saturday Evening Post, Wyeth’s unusual composition for The Hunter helped the artist capture the national imagination. The sycamore tree, rather than the hunter, is the protagonist in Wyeth’s visual narrative lending the painting a sense of mystery. Wyeth’s use of a bird’s eye view through the sparse autumnal leaves dramatically increases the tension—the viewer is literally flying through the branches without a stable perch.
Winter Fields, 1942
Tempera on panel
Whitney Museum of American Art
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Benno C. Schmidt in memory of Mr. Josiah Marvel, first owner of this picture
Andrew Wyeth discovered a dead crow behind his father’s Chadds Ford studio and immediately recognized the power of the image. The coal black bird is in stark contrast to the spectrum of earth tones that make up the Pennsylvania countryside and Winter Fields is painted from a worm’s eye view that requires the visitor to simultaneously look down upon the dead crow while looking uphill toward a farm on the ridge. Use of this disconcerting perspective reinforces the authority of an uncomfortable image of the last stage in the voyage of life.
- Thomas Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Leaf peepers heading to Vermont to see the fall foliage are in for a treat: an additional, full palette of Wyeths. Thirty-six works of three generations of the iconic family of artists are showing at the Shelburne Museum, which is actually a sprawling campus of exhibits, including the refurbished steamship Ticonderoga.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN)
YOUNG: Every year, Vermont Public Radio holds its listener picnic at the Shelburne. This year, we were privileged to join the hundred to attend and get a private tour with Shelburne Museum director and co-curator Thomas Denenberg of the Wyeth exhibit. It's called "Vertigo."
THOMAS DENENBERG: "Vertigo" is the key to understanding the Wyeths. All three generations of Wyeths - N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth - like to knock you off your pins a little bit to make you dizzy. And they do this by employing unusual perspective, extreme perspective in their paintings; paintings that look up, look down, in and out of odd spaces. But socially, they were very good at making people dizzy. We always talk about something called Wyeth world, where the individual members of the Wyeth family would like to knock you off your pins a little bit.
YOUNG: There is a view of the Wyeths as nice pictures. You had copies of them on your college dorm wall, and they were nice. But when you look closer, they aren't often nice. They do knock you off.
DENENBERG: Without a doubt. The Wyeths are very accessible. N. C. Wyeth, of course, the most famous illustrator in the 20th century. His son Andrew produced "Christina's World."
YOUNG: A woman stretch out in the grass in a sort of a kitchen dress, reaching towards a house on the hill.
DENENBERG: Exactly. And either that or "American Gothic" always comes back as the most popular American painting of the 20th century.
YOUNG: "American Gothic," the couple with their - the farmers with their fork - pitchforks.
DENENBERG: Exactly. But "Christina's World" is a dark painting. This woman has mobility issues. She's trying to get back up to the house. And that dark streak is something we see throughout Andrew Wyeth's career and it's something that's picked up on by his son as well.
YOUNG: Where shall we start?
DENENBERG: It all begins to the grandfather, N. C. Wyeth, in the early 20th century.
DENENBERG: N. C. Wyeth produced these heroic images, which were illustrations for potboiler, novels and serialized stories in magazines of the era, and were very used to sort of his image of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" or any of these great heroic images. In front of me, we have a group of men who are digging a train out that's been snowbound in the Far West, and that very cold, blue snow is something that just jumps right off the canvass.
YOUNG: Tom told us that N. C. Wyeth was enthralled with the Maine realist Edward Hopper, so much so that he moved the Wyeth family to Maine to observe him. But after the first modern art show in America, The Armory Show in 1913, he explored cubism, and always, there were the illustrations like "Just as the Baby's Feet Left the Ground."
DENENBERG: This is an extraordinary illustration from a story. It shows a baby who has been snatched by an eagle. But just as he is being carried off, there is a wolf that has shown up and grabbed a hold of the eagle and rescued the baby. This is a very dark narrative painting.
YOUNG: You know, and standing - we're just in the first room, but I feel the vertigo. We're up the air with the eagles, with the baby. We're up above everything.
DENENBERG: And just wait for the next generation when we get to Andrew Wyeth. The sense of dizzying perspective will increase in the 1940s.
YOUNG: Let's go. And, of course, the one - the piece that catches your eye.
DENENBERG: We're standing in front of Andrew Wyeth's masterpiece "Soaring." This is the painting that he started sketching in 1942 or 1943. He showed it to his father, N. C. Wyeth, a year later, and the story goes that N. C. Wyeth said, oh, Andy, that will never make a painting. So his kids and other sort of family members were using it as a train board. They have set up HO trains on the back of it. But it's a monumental, large scale painting of three turkey buzzards circling a little Pennsylvania farmhouse near his home in Chadds Ford.
YOUNG: It is dizzying. You're up there with that turkey buzzard.
DENENBERG: You are absolutely up there. And the question that the painting begs is, you know, are you another bird? You know, how can you get this perspective? This painting is also really a Cold War narrative. Between 1943, let's say, and when this painting is actually exhibited in 1950, the world over has been watching newsreels from World War II. After 1945, of course, we're used to, you know, duck and cover under our school desks. So sort of the dive bomber-like image of the painting is also something that Wyeth well and truly understood.
The other thing, of course, is these are scavengers, so the implication immediately is, you know, something is wrong on the ground, something is dead on the ground if these animals are circling that farm.
YOUNG: That's Shelburne, Vermont, museum director Thomas Denenberg on our tour of the Wyeth exhibit "Vertigo." You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
OK. What else do we see of Andrew?
DENENBERG: This is one of Andrew Wyeth's later paintings. It was executed in 2001. It's probably his last painting in this exhibition.
YOUNG: It looks like an old fireplace built into a wall, andirons in it, a low ceiling.
DENENBERG: It's called "Sparks," and it's his own living room in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. And Joyce Hill Stoner, who is our co-curator on this project, has spent a lot of time in that living room and told me that that space itself was also dizzying. Not only does it have that very low ceiling on it, but she said that the cocktail parties that went on in this space - Wyeth was very fond of putting his guests a little bit on the defensive and asking them 21 questions.
The other thing that really raises the hair on the back of my neck is Joyce Stoner asked Andrew Wyeth what was on his mind when he was painting this. And he said he was thinking about the last moments of Princess Diana as she lost her life in a tunnel in Paris. And this painting, once you think of that, you realize it becomes a tunnel. You just get kind of sucked right into that fireplace, past these beams. It's a very frightening painting.
YOUNG: Wow. Wow. The last room, Jamie Wyeth. We see a painting of a young man teetering over a cliff. There are exploding orange pumpkins, and a piece that Jamie did just for this exhibit. It's reminiscent of his father's aerial view of a farmhouse. "Jamie's" is an aerial view of his home on a Maine island.
DENENBERG: The tip of the island with the light house and the small house, and the waves look like they're about to just pour right over the island.
YOUNG: So this is potentially the turkey buzzard's view.
DENENBERG: The view of Jamie's house. Exactly. It's an extraordinary painting.
YOUNG: Quite something. So actually, look, we have a crowd of VPR listeners. So overall, Tom, you said the goal was to show how the Wyeths throw us off our pins. What else would you want us to know about all three of the Wyeths?
DENENBERG: The fascinating thing about the Wyeths is, you know, for the last 75 years or so, they have achieved tremendous popular acclaim, but they've never received critical respect. And in fact, in the 1940s and '50s, Andrew Wyeth was really the painter the critics love to hate. You know, critics found him, you know, too easy. But I think what everyone has missed over the years is just how profoundly strange they are, and that's the, you know, a term of great honor in the Wyeth family. They all use that.
"Wondrous Strange" was the name of a wonderful, wonderful exhibition a few years ago, and that's a Shakespearean term that they used in the family a lot to sort of explain their behavior. But the darkness and the vertiginous, that sort of dizzying quality, which all three of them exhibit, really makes a very interesting lens through which to see this dynasty of American painters.
YOUNG: Let them throw you off your balance.
DENENBERG: Off our balance.
YOUNG: Yeah. Thank you so much.
DENENBERG: Thank you so much for coming.
YOUNG: And, look, you guys. You got a free tour.
YOUNG: Some of our tour of the Wyeth exhibit Vertigo, three generations of Wyeths, N. C., his son Andrew, his son Jamie - the only living Wyeth artist - at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, with Thomas Denenberg, director of the museum and co-curator of the show with Joyce Hill Stoner. Thirty-nine works are on loan from museums, including Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Portland's Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and others. And works are also on loan from the Wyeth family as well.
"Vertigo" will be open through October if you're going leaf peeping. To see some of the works and for more on the exhibit, go to hereandnow.org. And thanks as well to VPR, Vermont Public Radio. Note other stations, Jeremy, try a listener picnic at a museum. It's a lot of fun.
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.