Andrew Wyeth b. 1917
- Andrew Wyeth
- Battle Ensign
- signed Andrew Wyeth, l.r.
- tempera on panel
Nicholas Wyeth, Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owners from the above, 1988
New York, Marcelle Fine Art, Andrew Wyeth: New New England, November-December 1990, no. 17, illustrated in color
Christopher Crosman, "Southern Island Light," Island Journal, January 1995, pp. 46-63
Island Institute, Holding Ground: The Best of Island Journal, Rockland, Maine, 2004
The Wyeth family began spending summers in Port Clyde, Maine in 1920, when Andrew was just three years old. His father N.C., the celebrated American illustrator, bought a rambling old sea captain’s house at the end of the St. George Peninsula, which he renovated and re-named Eight Bells, after the famous painting by Winslow Homer. In the ensuing years, Andrew explored the surrounding woods, fields and outlying islands and gradually became acquainted with the local residents; among them his young neighbor Walter Anderson, son of a lobsterman. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and working relationship, with Anderson serving as Wyeth’s link to the “authentic” Port Clyde and appearing in many of the artist’s paintings of Maine. For Wyeth, the roles of friend and model were inextricably intertwined and he formed intense emotional relationships with many of the people who proved to be his best subjects. Richard Meryman writes, “In their brotherly compact, Walt Anderson was the archetype of the Wyeth-model relationship. For Andrew, painting and friendship are spun together in a thread that extends for decades, severed only by death. ‘I’m involved with the people I paint,’ Wyeth says. ‘They become my friends. They’re not people I paint and send home’” (Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, New York, 1996, p. 121).
Wyeth was still in his teens when he began using Anderson as a model and during the summer of 1938 he completed two intense, very similar portraits--one of Anderson entitled Young Swede (1938, Private Collection) and Self-Portrait (1938, Private Collection). Anderson, with his white-blond hair and Nordic features, appeared in a number of Wyeth’s temperas during the course of their long friendship, including several works painted over a five year period in the 1980s, when Anderson’s health was failing. Among the important pictures painted during this time are Adrift (1982, Wyeth Collection), depicting Anderson lying in a dory drifting out to sea, reminiscent of a Viking funeral, and Sea Legs (1984, Private Collection), the last major tempera Wyeth painted of Anderson before his death in 1987.
Anderson’s death at the age of fifty-four ended one of the most significant relationships of Wyeth's career and the artist's connection to the heart of Maine. Wyeth was deeply affected by the loss and painted Battle Ensign as a memorial to his friend and the passing of a way of life in Maine. He recounted to Thomas Hoving, “This is a typical battle ensign used in the Navy—they’d hang it in storms. Betsy had just cleaned it—it’s an old flag. You notice the light of the fog in the flag? The picture’s a damp one. I tried to do it in watercolor, and it didn’t work; couldn’t get the depth. I overlaid that flag in the tempera to make you feel the muslin of it, which’d turned yellow with age like an old bloody tooth. The red is blood red. Not a pretty color. It’s a tough picture. It had to do with the loss of a close friend, Walter Anderson, who died while I was doing it—that went into it because he was so much of the sea. It’s the essence of storm, sea fights. I hung the flag backwards to have it not perfect, not the ‘beautiful, flying, patriotic thing,’ you know. A few complained: ‘it’s hanging back-to.’ That was the whole point. I liked it because it was wrong” ("Wyeth Since Helga," Connoisseur, December 1990, pp. 108-119).