My father, Charlton, was drawn instinctively to the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. On some visceral level, those bleak, windswept, New England landscapes – fraught with hidden meaning – and the enduring, craggy, Yankee outdoor faces, spoke to my father of his upbringing in the wilds of Northern Michigan. In many ways, the two artists were much alike: Dad saw himself as “a shy kid from backwoods Michigan who liked to wear tights and put on funny noses and spout Shakespeare while waving swords around.” I think he saw Andrew as a kindred spirit.
THE HESTON FAMILY CIRCA 1992 WITH FLOOD PLAIN VISIBLE IN THE BACKGROUND. COPYRIGHT 2015 LYDIA HESTON.
Our house was filled with paintings of all sorts and with many books, many of them on art and many of those on Andrew Wyeth and his paintings. Dad – himself a talented amateur artist – taught my sister, Holly, and me about art from an early age, and in our childhood we spent hours wandering the halls of museums around the world, gazing at Goyas and Velasquezes in the Prado, Michelangelos in the Vatican, Turners at the Tate. But it was Wyeth who called to my father. Dad never doubted that one day, “History, which is the ultimate critic… will determine Mr. Wyeth’s place among painters, sometime in the next century, as she did with Turner and Van Gogh and Lautrec…”
“Andrew Wyeth seems to me a most mysterious artist, searching for the inside of everything he paints. His subjects are people and places, usually considered separately. They are all, somehow... fraught… Be dazzled, if you will, by what he does with his brushes, but look for what he puts beneath. Look for the mystery.”
Eventually, inevitably, he took the plunge, and purchased Ice Pool, a lovely, large, moody watercolor, for my mother, Lydia, from Frank Fowler, Wyeth’s representative. A rare sort of Wyeth – impressionistic, almost Japanese in style – it resonated of those frozen Michigan winters and long, lonely, lovely walks through the gloaming woods, where the elements of wood, water, ice, and light are fused in a single reflection. It is no coincidence that my father’s favorite author was Ernest Hemingway, his favorite poet Robert Frost, and his favorite painter Andrew Wyeth.
ANDREW WYETH'S ICE POOL, 1986. ESTIMATE $150,000–250,000.
But it was Flood Plain, acquired in 1988, which really spoke to Charlton. A strong, yet subtle composition in depth, so characteristic of Wyeth: the ruins of a Conestoga wagon – and abandoned restoration project, according to Andrew – fills the foreground with an unusual burst of color (wait, is that a footprint in the frozen grass?) and then the perspective of the wagon ruts leads the eye back to the mysterious, quintessential Wyeth farmhouse swept with a skiff of snow; dark, asymmetrical windows hiding who knows what unspoken secrets, and one can just spy a second structure hidden behind the bare, wintery trees. That house could have been the house my father grew up in. Dad believed that, based on a conversation with Andrew, there was once a figure in the foreground as well, later painted over, leaving only the footprints. As with all great art, my father felt it is what is not said that is important. “Look for the mystery,” as Dad said. He loved this painting, more than any other in our collection.
Sometime during this period, Charlton became friendly with Andrew, first through respectful correspondence, ultimately visiting Andrew, Betsy and Jamie at the Chadds Ford studio (these marvelous photos, taken by my mother Lydia, clearly show the open camaraderie in their relationship). After the Helga pictures were released in 1986, my father narrated a documentary on Andrew’s work, titled “The Helga Pictures Study,” wrote numerous articles on Wyeth for publications such as the National Review, and became a passionate and very public Wyeth defender. In 1989, I was directing my father in a filmed adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and hit upon the idea of using N.C. Wyeth’s evocative illustrations from the 1911 edition as the basis for all our production design – essentially the look and feel of the entire film. Andrew graciously gave his consent for us to make large blow-ups of the paintings (from transparencies he provided), and in return we offered Andrew and his family and friends a premiere screening of the film at the Brandywine Museum when it was completed (I was thrilled when, years later, the Brandywine exhibited frame stills from our film alongside N.C.’s illustrations).
After the screening, Andrew laid on an elaborate private dinner in the gallery itself, where he had gathered all of N.C.’s magnificent Treasure Island paintings. I must admit my father and I, like two kids in a candy store, could not suppress the foolish, awed grins from our faces the entire night. After dinner, Andrew turned to us and said, “Would you like a tour of the gallery?” Well, imagine if Mickey Mantle asked you if you’d like to play catch, or Ernest Hemingway asked if you’d like to go marlin fishing. Giddily, we followed Andrew through the galleries of his family’s work – not only Nathaniel’s, but Andrew’s and Jamie’s as well, even the only-recently revealed Helgas – complete with running and very candid commentary by Andrew and Betsy. “Three generations of genius” my father whispered in my ear. Andrew even dragged some master works out of the vault for my wife, Marilyn, and me.
When it was over, and we were standing in front of one of his New England landscapes, I believe, I turned to Wyeth and (rather cheekily) asked, “Andrew, what are they all about?” Perhaps it was the story-teller in me. Andrew smiled and said, “They’re about love.”
Just before Christmas Day, 1991, a mysterious, large, flat package arrived at our home, with the enticing words “A. Wyeth” on the cover. Dad refused to open it until Christmas, and when he did, it was worth the wait. Study for Flood Plain was taped to a piece of plywood, a gift from Andrew for the Hestons. “I haven’t been so excited about a Christmas gift since I was ten years old,” chortled my father in his note to Andrew. “You’ve given our family not only a piece of your work, which is both your livelihood and your life, but a part of the process… a private part of your working insides…”
It’s no wonder, I suppose, Charlton had such an affinity for Wyeth’s works. “Andrew Wyeth,” my father would often say, “is the quintessential American painter.” Look for the mystery.