Monday, January 19, 2009

Andrew Wyeth: Ripples on a pond

When I heard that the artist Andrew Wyeth (see official website, Wikipedia biography) had passed away on Friday at the age of 91, it was not unlike hearing that a distant relative had died: my Uncle David has always considered Wyeth a major artistic influence. Just as a stone tossed to water causes ripples that radiate long after the stone's disappearance, Andrew Wyeth's work continues to affect David's painting and my own artistic sensibilities, and likely will for some time.

Like Wyeth, David is considered a "regionalist" painter, depicting rural scenes mostly in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Also like Wyeth, David works in watercolour and egg tempera. (I personally prefer his watercolours, with their more subdued tones.) He's had numerous shows and exhibitions, but I suspect his favorite was the one in Andrew Wyeth's hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

Here are a few snapshots of David's work from my dad's collection, though I suppose one day I will have to start thinking of it as my collection. (These small photos don't begin to do justice to the paintings, but will have to suffice.)

Annapolis boat yard, pen and ink, 1971. Good drawing is the basis for great painting.

Onion shed, watercolour, 1973.

One way in which David's work differs from Andrew Wyeth's is that while David's landscapes almost always include man-made elements (houses, barns, etc.), the human form rarely if ever makes a direct appearance. Some critics, I assume, would draw psychological conclusions about this aspect of David's art, but I also suspect that most of those conclusions would be completely off-base. My uncle, like most in the family, could hardly be classified as an extrovert, but a gentler, more personable man you're not likely to meet.

Pump house, watercolour, 1973.

I have always admired, perhaps because it comes with great difficulty for me, the way artists like David can suggest detail that isn't necessarily there, as for example in the leaves and textured bark of the tree behind and to the left of the pump house. Robert Bateman, another artist both David and I admire, is a master of this.

Burkittsville, watercolour, 1984.

Watercolour is a difficult medium for a number of reasons, but one has to do with its transparency. Unlike with oils or acrylics, for example, there is no white paint. White comes from the paper itself, so the white areas in a painting like this (the snow, the fences, the sunlit sides of the house) are not painted but painted around. The unforgiving nature of the medium therefore requires a good deal of planning as well as meticulous technique; David typically "scouts" a painting with several visits to explore various points of view and study the changing of the light, but paints at home using photographs for reference. He does not consider himself bound by the physical realities of a location, however, often rearranging various elements for artistic effect.

On my last visit home in November, with the painting itself in the back seat of the Outback and a Maryland highway map pointing me toward Burkittsville, I set out to locate this scene. It wasn't difficult to find: Needwood Farms, established circa 1795, is located perhaps a mile outside the town of Burkittsville, right off Highway 17. Once there, I could see that David had flattened out the field in the foreground; from the point of view he used, the house is actually half-hidden behind a rise in the field. (Also, as you can see in the photo below, the evergreens around the house have grown much bigger since '84.)

The ridge behind the farm is the low backbone of South Mountain, where on September 14, 1862 Major General George B. McClellan's Union troops attacked General Robert E. Lee's scattered Confederate forces, which ten days earlier had advanced into Maryland for the first time. McClellan took the three gaps held by the Confederates, achieving a significant Union victory at this stage of the war, but failed to press his advantage. The Battle of South Mountain was consigned to obscurity through McClellan's delay, which gave Lee time to gather his army near Sharpsburg, on the west bank of Antietam Creek. The ensuing battle there, on September 17, marked the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War.

David's personal website (like the gallery site here) is definitely worth checking out despite being a bit out of date, which is a reflection of the fact that health issues threatened to put an end to his painting career. Happily, he has made a remarkable recovery from what can be an utterly debilitating condition, and is painting once again. I hope to be able to post more later. Meanwhile, condolences from our family to Andrew Wyeth's. His was a remarkable talent.


Anonymous said...

I was so pleased to discover your posting. I recently received one of David's watercolors as a birthday present and was having some difficulty location information on him. It was wonderful to learn more about him and see more of his work. I saw the watercolor I received in a shop and fell in love with it. It is of some barn buildings in the snow. The detail is amazing. I could not wait to get it up on the wall. I look forward to enjoying it for years to come.

Mark Churchill said...

Congratulations and happy birthday. Wish I knew which painting—not the one with amber-coloured glass globes on the spires of the barn, by chance? Anyway, I'm glad you liked the piece; you can find more on David here:

Jim Mudd said...

Spires (lightning rods?) do have globes on them but they appear more gray than amber colored. I took a picture but do not know how to post it. The buildings are connected end to end. There is an open door in the center with what looks to be sacks of feed in the doorway. The building ends short of the right side of the painting with two large silo-like structures connected by a traditional farm house-like door. It really is wonderful. There is something in the crispness of the lines and the coldness of the snow that feels so soothing and orderly. Thank your uncle for me. I admire both his talent and his physical determination.