“I own a Wyeth landscape I'm told once had a figure painted in the foreground,” Charlton Heston of Andrew Wyeth’s striking painting Flood Plain
. “It's gone now, leaving only a faint scuff of footprint in the frosted grass. Who was it, though...where has he gone? Why?” As a great admirer of Wyeth’s work, with these words Mr. Heston astutely captures the distinctive quality that has made Wyeth among the most popular and celebrated American artists of the 20th
century. Born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Wyeth employed the landscape, buildings and denizens of his hometown as subject matter throughout his life, typically choosing to focus on aspects and elements of the world that were ordinarily overlooked. Painted in 1986, Flood Plain
exemplifies Wyeth’s ability to impart drama and to distill an intriguing composition from the most ordinary of scenes.
In Flood Plain,
the artist presents a view of the environment surrounding the mill and granary on his family’s land in Chadds Ford, where the remnants of a hay wagon lay in a field sodden with ice. “I wanted to capture the clean-swept character of the beginning of the winter after the floods,” the artist later explained of his inspiration for the composition. “
I looked out and wondered, What’s that blue thing? It was the startling blue cover of a wagon. I found the car tracks rushing toward me exciting. The wagon had been in some parade and had been dumped out there near the raceway” (as cited in Thomas Hoving, Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography
, Kansas City, Missouri, 1995, p. 140).
After their marriage in 1940, Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, began to divide their time between Maine and Pennsylvania, spending the summers with her family in Cushing and returning to Chadds Ford for the rest of the year. As a result, much of his work executed in Pennsylvania reflects the sparer environment the spring and winter seasons. “Chadds Ford is set in a brown and gray landscape,” describes Brian O’Doherty of this place, “mild swells of earth tumbling the view, bare trees spotting the hills and running into brittle fringes against the sky. The map is veined with tributaries to the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers. It is an old landscape, settled by Germans and Quakers. Their firm hand is still on it—shown in the solid stone buildings, the arable acres, the overlap of neatness and precision that comes from generations of responsible cultivation” (The Art of Andrew Wyeth
, San Francisco, California, 1964, p. 15). Thus, as is often typical of his temperas, Wyeth renders Flood Plain
primarily in tones of beige, ochre, brown and white, vividly capturing not only the details but also the feel of the winter’s day. The vibrant blue of the wagon itself contrasts dynamically with this more muted palette, adding a bold passage of color that is ultimately rare within the artist’s oeuvre
Wyeth’s consideration of color in works such as Flood Plain
is deeply tied to his choice of medium. The artist worked with various media such as charcoal and watercolor from the earliest years of his career but began to experiment with egg tempera in the late 1930s. By the time he completed Flood Plain
, his mastery of the medium was fully realized. In an interview with Thomas Hoving, he explained his attraction to working in tempera by saying, “I think the real reason tempera fascinated me was that I loved the quality of the colors; the earth colors, the terra verde, the ochers, the reds, the Indian reds, and the blue-reds are superb. They aren’t artificial. I like to pick the colors up and hold them in my fingers. Tempera is something with which I build–like building in great layers the way earth was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness” (Andrew Wyeth Autobiograph
Indeed beyond this subtlety of palette, tempera also afforded Wyeth the opportunity to hone an exacting attention to detail, as is beautifully demonstrated in Flood Plain. Unlike his watercolors, which evoke a sense of spontaneity and immediacy that is in part created by the malleability inherent to that medium, Wyeth utilized tempera to instill his pictures with a lasting quality seemingly exempt from the passing of time. In Flood Plain he utilizes meticulous and minute brushstrokes to render elements of the composition such as the innumerable blades of grass that cover the foreground and the snow-filled tracks that slice through the horizontal picture plane. This style of execution creates a stunning and varied sense of texture, and ultimately imbues the composition with an almost sculptural sense of solidity that is absent from his work in other media.
Wyeth’s ability to render details with near-photographic accuracy in works such as Flood Plain has undoubtedly contributed to his reputation as an unfailing realist. The artist rejected this interpretation of his own aesthetic, however, and instead saw it as achieving a kind of synthesis between representation and abstraction. “Why not have the abstraction and the real, too?” he asked. “Combine the two, bring in the new with the traditional and you can’t beat it. I believe, however, that I don’t want to let the one take over the other. I try for equal balance…I want the object to be there in my paintings, perhaps in all of its smallest detail, not as a tour de force, but naturally, in such a way that I have backed into it” (as cited in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, New York, 1976, p. 18).
Though it depicts an identifiable place, Flood Plain cannot be defined as purely representational, resisting this categorization because of the underlying sense of the surreal it strongly conveys. Mr. Heston recognized this simultaneously palpable yet elusive quality that pervades Wyeth’s work: “Andrew Wyeth seems to me a most mysterious artist,” he explained, “searching for the inside of everything he paints. His subjects are people and places, usually considered separately. They are all, somehow...fraught. I can think of no other word.”
The enigmatic feeling that radiates from Wyeth’s landscapes brings to mind the work of contemporary painters such as Peter Doig, whose aesthetic explores themes of magical realism. Both artists present the viewer with imagery that is recognizable yet somehow unfamiliar, ultimately creating the sense that the place as we see it is not exactly what it appears to be. The achieved effect is undeniably cinematic, yet the viewer is not privy to the full arc of the artist’s narrative. What is imparted is the strong sense that something is about to occur that will upset the stillness of the scene. Mr. Heston understood the need to look beyond Wyeth as a realist in order to fully comprehend his intent: “Be dazzled, if you will, by what he does with his brushes, but look for what he puts beneath. Look for the mystery.”