“Why did it take the Philadelphia museum 90 years to give me a show?” he said, referring to the recent “Memory and Magic” exhibition of his work. He gripped the edge of the table and quivered his arms. “Ninety years! I was barely holding on!”
Philadelphia being Philadelphia, the city’s purveyors of art seemed fraught with the endemic sense of inferiority: If it’s local, it can’t be that good. So Andrew Wyeth waited while the city first perused Edvard Munch, Salvador Dali, Warhol. It didn’t help that some people perceive illustration — the stuff of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth — as inferior to pure painting. “I think it’s hard for them to discriminate between that and the type of painting that I struggled to do, expressions of emotion and things that happened around me,” Andrew said, “whether it’s the death of a dog or a light on a branch or a leaf on the ground. Which is a very personal thing.”
The casual viewer may overlook this depth — these emotional tectonic plates shifting beneath the surface — and so it’s easy to see the paintings simply as a table setting, or a boy running down a hill, or a pretty woman with braids. But the effort of looking closer and longer rewards the viewer with a greater understanding, not just of the Wyeth family, but of the region’s own artistic heritage, and universal emotions — frailty and fear, yes, but also exuberance and remembrance — shared by the painter, the subject, and the viewer himself.
Near the end of the meal, Joyce Stoner mentioned a new painting she’d received for conservation at Winterthur Museum. “A Howard Pyle,” she said.
Andrew suddenly leaned across the table toward her, blue eyes wide. “A Pyle, you say? Howard Pyle?”
Andrew became a little boy with a secret wish. “Can — can I come see it?”
She stared at him. “Yes, of course.”
As we left the restaurant, Andrew watched Jamie walk ahead, outpacing us with his quick stride. He wore his usual get-up — the antique painter’s outfit with knickerbockers, long jacket, a vest with painted buttons. Andrew’s eyes softened. “Look at him,” he said. “He dresses more like my father every day. I love it. I just love it.”
I asked him about my Jewish friend’s visit — the time Andrew had pulled on part of a Nazi uniform — and he grinned and shook his head. “We all grew up with these marvelous costumes and uniforms that my father collected for his illustrations,” he said. “So we lived the history, and we’d put these things on.”
We entered Winterthur through a private entrance, and wound our way to the museum. There we entered the conservation room, where a collection of college-age women worked to repair and repaint damaged works. Their eyes widened as Andrew and Jamie Wyeth entered, accompanied by Helga. But Andrew only saw the painting: a sailor plying a dark sea, with just a pinpoint of light in the distance.
“Oh, Jamie,” he cried. “Do you think it’s really a Pyle?”
Jamie said, “I do,” and the father and son crowded close to the canvas. They seemed to exist in their own world, in that moment, practically pressing their eyeballs against this work by their artistic forebear, each wearing a costume from a different century, communing with a dead painter through his work.
The Wyeths are strange people. To discover such strangeness in them seems shocking — locked in the chicken house? A Nazi uniform? — and their admirers have long avoided publicly discussing some of the darker aspects of their lives, as though it damages their legacy. But the opposite is true. A restricted view only diminishes them. When people discuss Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol, they think nothing of the weirdness inherent in those men and their work, because they were great artists. The same applies to the Wyeths and their paintings: Their strangeness makes them beautiful.
Andrew Wyeth pulled the Pyle painting off its easel, setting off a small panic among the art conservators. But Andrew didn’t notice.
“Can’t you just feel the swell of the sea, Jamie?” the old painter said. “Can’t you just feel this wonderful darkness?”