Andrew Newell Wyeth was born on July 12, 1917, in the pastoral Pennsylvania farming region of Chadds Ford. Son of Newell Convers and Carolyn Bockius Wyeth, most of Andrew Wyeth’s art instruction came from his world-renowned father, most commonly known as N.C. Wyeth. N.C. Wyeth was made famous for his illustrations in classic children’s books, such as Treasure Island and Robin Hood. Sinus troubles early in his childhood prevented Andrew Wyeth from attending public school, and his parents were consequently forced to hire private tutoring, which left Wyeth with a considerable amount of spare time to indulge in his father’s collection of historical costumes and props. Andrew Wyeth’s discovery of his father’s studio sparked his natural tendency towards art, which quickly blossomed under the gaze of his father. As quoted from an interview with Thomas Hoving for his exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976-1977, Andrew Wyeth recollected, “I played alone, and wandered a great deal over the hills, painting watercolors that literally exploded, slapdash over my pages, and drew in pencil or pen and ink in a wild and undisciplined manner.”
Not until Andrew Wyeth reached the age of 15 did his father begin to instruct him in art, after he showed his father a toy miniature theater he had designed. N.C. Wyeth began to teach his son the principles and techniques of painting but did not impose upon him his own artistry. N.C. Wyeth preached the relationship of painting to life, to mood, to essences, and to capturing the subtleties of varying lighting and shadows. This pattern of father-to-son instruction would be repeated with Andrew Wyeth’s son Jamie, who would also become a well-known artist. Most of Wyeth’s inspiration behind his first one-man show at the William MacBeth Gallery in New York City in October 1937 came from countless summer months spent in New England and Port Clyde, Maine. The show featured watercolor landscapes and seascapes of Maine, and the show reflected immediate success with a sell out. Although still continuing to paint his deft watercolors after the show, such as his 1942 series of lobsters, Wyeth began to shadow his brother-in-law, painter Peter Hurd, who introduced him to a medium called egg tempera. This new technique forced Wyeth to slow the process of his work which in turn granted him the ability to achieve his distinguishable textural effects. In October of 1945, the turning point in Wyeth’s life and career came with the death of his father, whose car stalled and was hit by a train at a railroad crossing. This devastating loss in Wyeth’s life began to define his artwork, which began to shift from Realism to Abstract Expressionism. It wasn’t until after his father’s death that he began to paint people. His portraits usually consisted of a single figure, grave and reflective, which cast a sense of loneliness into the painting. Wyeth concentrated for several months after his father’s death in painting a tempera titled Winter 1946, which depicts a boy running down a hill, and suggests the remorse that Wyeth felt for never painting a portrait of his father. Wyeth said in a Time magazine interview, “Over on the other side of that hill was where my father was killed, and I was sick I’d never painted him. The hill finally became a portrait of him.”
After Wyeth’s loss, he began to paint series of portraits of people whom he became close to, including Karl Keurner, a native to Chadds Ford whose farm had fascinated Wyeth since childhood. On his twenty-second birthday, Wyeth met Betsy Merle James while spending the summer in Maine. They married the following year on May 15, 1940, and Betsy was responsible for introducing Wyeth to Christina Olson, who had been crippled by polio since childhood and became Wyeth’s favorite subject. Christina’s World (1948) became Wyeth’s most famous work through its haunting appeal and broad symbolism of Christina Olson dragging herself through a field toward her distant house. Even though the body of Olson is frail and weak, her inner strength is evident in the portrait. After the death of Christina Olson, whose personality and qualities made her Wyeth’s favorite subject, Wyeth began to explore the female model Helga Testorf, who was also a native of Chadds Ford. For almost fifteen years, beginning in 1971, Wyeth painted a series of 240 portraits of Helga, which were kept a secret from everyone, including his wife Betsy. Wyeth revealed the Helga paintings to Betsy in 1985, and arranged a sale of the paintings to Leonard Andrews. Enticed by the suggestion of a secret love affair between Wyeth and Helga, Wyeth’s paintings caused an “avalanche of sensational publicity,” due to some nude perspectives. The Helga paintings were exhibited in 1987 at the National Gallery of Art, which was the gallery’s first exhibition of artwork from a living artist.
Throughout his career, Wyeth has received many honors. He was the subject of a cover story for Time magazine in 1963 and was the first visual artist deemed worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Johnson in that same year. In 1980, Wyeth became the first living artist to be elected to Britain’s Royal Academy, and seven years later he received a D.F.A from Bates College. Wyeth was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1990. He was the first artist to have been given that honor. In 2007, he was presented the National Medal of Arts, given to those artists who “...are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.” Today, most of Wyeth’s paintings on public display reside in the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. His works have generated increasingly higher prices with his growing fame, with his major works selling for over one million dollars from private dealers at auctions. Wyeth’s work has long been controversial, but his abstract realism that has gained currency in American art and greatly influenced modern art. Andrew Wyeth passed away in his sleep on January 16, 2009 in his life-long home of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.