T he Wyeth family isn't like most other families.
Whether by nature or design, superb artistic talent runs in the family – beginning with famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, to his son, 20th-century painter Andrew Wyeth and grandson, contemporary artist Jamie Wyeth. N.C. began tutoring his son in figure study and watercolor from a young age, and Andrew taught Jamie in the same fashion. With this, the Wyeths came to play an essential role in the greater canon of 20th-century American art.
The Wyeth legacy is tangible in their paintings; seeing the work of Andrew and Jamie side-by-side, one can discern how the father instructed his son to observe a landscape, place a shadow or style a figure's hand. Sotheby's New York American Art auction includes works by both Andrew and Jamie; the grouping is fortuitous, creating the ideal occasion to explore a narrative between father and son, tutor and pupil, each renowned in his own right.
A Personal Touch: Letters with Watercolor Embellishment
Both Andrew and Jamie had an aptitude for watercolor, which they sometimes employed on letters to close friends. Two examples of this are Andrew's Letter with Nome in Venetian Mask, 1984, and Jamie's Letter with a Lighthouse and Anchor. Both letters are addressed to Mrs. Catherine Auchincloss (1927-2017), fondly known as "KK" to her friends and family; Mrs. Auchincloss was involved with the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art, of which the Wyeth family's art is central, in addition to having had her portrait painted by Jamie Wyeth.
In this letter, Andrew Wyeth sends his thanks to Mrs. Auchincloss for her gift of a Venetian mask; Andrew painted Nome, his wife Betsy's Alaskan Chinook, modeling the mask. The letter notes:
"I am mad about your remarkable gift, and I look forward to using it in a painting."
Indeed, the mask was worn by Ann Call in Andrew's Winter Carnival, executed in 1985.
Jamie wrote this letter to Mrs. Auchincloss from Maine, where the Wyeths enjoy a family home on Southern Island. "Dearest K.K. –," the letter begins, "I have just painted the sea anchor white – which gives it the appearance of a great bleached whale bone." On the verso, Wyeth continues: "You must come see it immediately! Phillis tells me of your terrible trials with your back again. I am certain it needs some Maine air."
There are a number of stylistic similarities between the two works – notice the stark white coloring used for both the mask and the anchor, as well as the skilled shadowing and confident brushstrokes.
The value of these letters extends beyond the demonstrated artistic skill; they serve as a window to an intimate Wyeth family tradition, likely passed from father to son.
Finding Solace in Maine
N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth each found his own model and muse in Maine; the state's rocky coastline and dark tide features in a number of the artists' works over the years. Andrew met his wife, Betsy, in Maine in 1939, and the pair later purchased a summer home in Cushing, a small town on the coast. It's in Cushing that Andrew painted his famed Christina's World (1948), in addition to a number of other works.
Maine later became central to Jamie's life as well; in addition to his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, he maintains his family's properties in Maine, including Lobster Cove on Monhegan Island and Tenants Harbor Light on Southern Island. Pictured below, Piece of the Wreck was painted by Jamie in 1977 in Lobster Cove. It depicts a piece of the tug boat D.T. Sheridan that sank in the cove in 1948; a large storm in the 1970s moved the wreckage further inland.
Both Andrew and Jamie mastered figure study from a young age. And though each artist experimented broadly with other subjects, they often returned to painting figure studies and complete portraits. Shown here are two figure studies by Andrew, both created in the early 1990s.
You can bid on works by Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth and others in Sotheby's American Art auction; while the auction goes live on September 17th, the lots are currently open for early bidding.