Enter Wyeth’s Reality

with N.C. Wyeth • Walter Anderson • Allan Lynch • Christina Olson • Karl and Anna Kuerner • Willard Snowden • Helga Testorf • Betsy Wyeth • Adam Johnson • Bill Loper

Lobsterman (Walt Anderson)

An Awful Lot of Thinking and Dreaming

The only artistic training Andrew Wyeth receives is in the studio of his father, N.C. Wyeth, a famous illustrator. His apprenticeship begins at the age of fifteen. The inhabitants of Andrew’s childhood home of Chadds Ford, PA, and his summer home in Cushing, ME, fascinate him as he experiences, imagines, and portrays the lives that lend contours to the surrounding land. By the time he is 20 the young artist sells out his first New York exhibition of watercolors. Four years later he exhibits works that begin to define his signature style: highly detailed, strangely hyper-realistic paintings in egg tempera. These large temperas show for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. With these early successes, Andrew Wyeth begins to emerge from the shadow of his father’s art fame.



Winter 1946

The Bone Structure in the Landscape

At eight years old Andrew Wyeth sees King Vidor’s film, The Big Parade, with his father. Over his lifetime he watches it hundreds of times, filtering his perception of the world around him through this cinematic lens. Images from the film emerge in Wyeth’s paintings as he grieves the tragic loss of his father, who is killed in Chadds Ford by an oncoming train near the neighboring Kuerner cattle farm on October, 19, 1945. The Wyeth family is forever left wondering, was this an accident or suicide? Kuerner’s Hill is associated with death, and Andrew Wyeth is devoted to painting the landscapes and locals as never before.



Wind From the Sea

The Loneliness of It

Andrew Wyeth completes his first portrait of Christina Olson, who suffered from a degenerative muscle disorder that left her unable to walk, in 1947. When his next painting of her, Christina’s World, is acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, Wyeth’s fame grows. As a subject for paintings, Christina Olson uniquely engages Wyeth’s imagination. She is his friend and muse. With her brother, Alvaro, Christina’s stalwart life takes on the qualities of Maine’s rock-bound coast. What will happen when these protagonists of his painted world vanish from Wyeth’s reality? Wyeth paints Christina and her house in Maine every summer until she dies in January 1968 at age 74.



I think a person permeates a spot, and a lost presence makes the environment timeless to me, keeps an area alive. It pulsates because of that.


– Andrew Wyeth

The Keurners

Something Waits Beneath It

Linked forever to the site of Andrew Wyeth’s father’s untimely death are Karl and his wife, Anna Kuerner, whose farm is the location of the often painted Kuerner’s Hill. In 1948 Wyeth paints his first portrait of Karl, a machine gunner in the German army in WWI. His portraits of the farm and the aging couple are numerous. Over the years Wyeth imbues details with layered meaning as he contemplates mortality and love, the killer in Karl—forever a brutal shadow of Andrew’s own father—and the withdrawn depression of Anna, who refuses to pose for him. Theirs is a life of survival on the farm where death is often nonchalant and love is tenuous.



The Drifter

The People Who Have Existed There

Hard-luck drifter, Willard Snowden moves into Andrew Wyeth’s studio in 1958 and lives there for nearly fifteen years, frequently modeling for Wyeth, who enjoys painting him while Snowden regales the artist with stories. Wyeth and Snowden have a bond: Snowden poses and an obliging Wyeth supplies him with wine. Snowden is a World War II veteran and, sadly, an alcoholic, whose aging, expressive face fascinates Wyeth. The relationship of Wyeth to this model, as with many of Wyeth’s characters, begs the question: is Andrew Wyeth capturing or creating reality?



Black Velvet

The Whole Story Doesn’t Show

Andrew Wyeth becomes enchanted by Helga Testorf, who begins to work for the aging Kuerners as household help in 1970. In the attic of the Kuerner home he paints Helga, a married woman, in secret from his wife, Betsy—a secret he keeps for almost fifteen years. He hides these studies, often nude and erotic, of Helga at the Kuerners’. He also paints Helga in his sister Carolyn’s painting studio, adjacent to their father’s old studio. The secret of Helga adds to the psychological tension of all Wyeth’s paintings in these, the Helga years.



Snow Hill

The Dead Feeling of Winter

“I am an illustrator of my own life,” Wyeth says. Many of his friends and muses dead, Andrew Wyeth paints his Chadds Ford characters into Snow Hill a final tempera beginning in 1987, the year of his 70th birthday. Betsy Wyeth likens her husband to Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman: “He’s creating a world they [his models] don’t realize and they’re acting out a part without any script.” His models, living and dead, dance on Kuerner’s Hill and recall Bergman’s dance of death from the iconic final scene of The Seventh Seal. Just as Death dances the players off to their graves in the film, Wyeth dances his characters off to their art-muse graves, and they never again appear in his paintings. Wyeth moves toward a freer use of tempera washes and watercolor and infuses an increasingly mystical quality into his subtle and haunting symbolism from that point forward. Wyeth continued to paint until his death in 2009 at age 91.