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Though he came of age in an art world dominated by Pop and then Neo-expressionism, Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946) followed in his father’s footsteps, creating an extraordinary body of Realist artwork. With highly detailed canvases inducing the viewer to look more closely, Wyeth captures the essence of the people, places and animals he paints.
Jamie Wyeth, a recently opened retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, includes more than 100 paintings from the last six decades. Traces of artistic influence from his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), and father, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), are evident in the work on display here. But from the beginning, Jamie Wyeth differentiated his art from theirs with highly personal works that are his alone.
Located in Chadds Ford Township in Pennsylvania, the Brandywine Museum is a fitting venue. Three generations of Wyeth artists lived and worked in Chadds Ford. Today the museum owns and maintains the Wyeth family home, offering guided tours of N.C. Wyeth’s studio, Andrew Wyeth’s studio and Kuerner Farm.
When he was just twenty years old, Jamie Wyeth was commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of President Kennedy. In “Portrait of John F. Kennedy,” 1967, the pensive look on Kennedy’s face is expressed through the details, white teeth visible between the President’s barely parted lips, a thumbnail pressed softly against his jaw, the slightly drooping lid of President Kennedy’s right eye.
No common head-and-shoulder view, this portrait sits left of center in a wide horizontal canvas. The President’s relaxed pose creates a sense of intimacy, while the focused look on Kennedy’s face expresses fierce intellect. While Jacqueline Kennedy was pleased with this portrait, the President’s brothers were not happy with it. The painting is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
One of Wyeth’s most popular pictures, “Kleberg,” 1984, is a portrait of the artist’s Labrador retriever. Wyeth’s dog, Kleberg, is said to have sat patiently while the artist painted a black circle around his eye and then posed him in the studio. Here the dog shares the canvas with a large bee skep, a composition that gave Wyeth plenty of opportunity for fine detail with the texture of the wicker beehive and the dog’s musculature. In the background of this odd painting is a shelf of books with titles that were of personal importance to the artist.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Wyeth divides his time between Chadds Ford and Maine. On Monhegan Island in Maine, the artist has had ample opportunity to study seagulls and knows them to be vicious scavengers. A series of paintings titled “The Seven Deadly Sins” depicts seagulls acting out human vices.
In “Sloth,” 2007, a lazy seagull with closed eyes rests quietly in the lower foreground. Delicate brushstrokes of grey, blue and white create layers of feathers gently ruffled by the breeze. The resting bird is oblivious to the frantic squawking from the colony behind him, a flock of gulls beating the air with their wings, open beaks screeching. In this disturbing picture, the gulls’ prey appears to be human, with a man’s leg visible on the left and what appears to be a head to the right. This gory scene recalls the painting “Prometheus Bound,” 1618, by Peter Paul Rubens, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a work surely familiar to Wyeth.
Made with watercolor and gouache, all seven of the “Deadly Sins” are here. The works-on-paper are mounted on bright red mats and framed in black, a color scheme that adds to the sinister feeling of the series.
“The Sea, Watched,” 2009, is set on a rocky coastline by a turbulent ocean. The dark grey and black of the stones have just enough white highlights to suggest glistening water sprayed by churning waves. Large brushstrokes describe choppy, stained-red waters.
This painting is based on one of the artist’s recurring dreams. In it, the artist’s grandfather, N.C. Wyeth, stands with folded arms alongside Jamie Wyeth’s father, Andrew, who points out to sea. At the left of the canvas, a dark fir tree obscures a third figure. The unmistakable white wig identifies this person as artist Andy Warhol, a friend of Wyeth’s. Though all three figures in the painting died years ago, they are brought back to life in this compelling dreamscape.
Wyeth’s paintings are more than photographic images; they engage all the senses, imparting the softness of feathers, the seagulls’ screeching, the feeling of a man’s fist on his chin and the loyalty shining in a dog’s eyes. With precise detail and emotional authenticity, Wyeth’s paintings bring renewed energy to the Realist tradition.
Jamie Wyeth, on view through April 5, 2015, Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, PA, 610-388-2700, www.brandywinemuseum.org