One of the most well-known artists of the 20th century, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was beloved by the masses and pummeled by the critics. The American painter’s work — landscapes from his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and summer home in Cushing, Maine; portraits of people he knew; interior scenes — were created in a realist, “regionalist” style and are held in the collections of most major American museums, including the Met, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. During his lifetime, Wyeth’s gallery shows sold out and his museum exhibitions were visited by thousands. Nevertheless, throughout most of his career, the artist wasn’t taken seriously in journalistic or academic circles.
The new American Masters documentary “Wyeth” sheds light on the artist’s legacy, providing a nuanced portrait and deeper look at his powerful style, inspirations and massive body of work. The film, which premieres tonight on PBS and will be available for streaming on ALL ARTS the next day, features interviews with the artist’s two sons, rare archival footage and materials from the family’s personal collection. “Wyeth” is part of American Masters’ four-part series “Artists Flight,” which includes documentaries on Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Murray and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
He didn’t like to cloister himself inside a studio
Wyeth took an unconventional approach to creating art. Instead of using a dedicated studio space, the artist preferred to switch up his working environments. Of this odd habit, he once remarked: “I don’t really have studios. I wander around around people’s attics, out in fields, in cellars, anyplace I find that invites me.”
He suffered from poor health as a child
Homeschooled for most of his upbringing, Wyeth learned from his father, who was a member of elite literary social circles. According to an obituary in The New York Times, Wyeth immersed himself in the writings of Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau and hobnobbed with luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Pickford.
His famous painting, “Christina’s World,” was based on a real person
Wyeth drew inspiration for “Christina’s World,” one of the most widely known American masterpieces of the 20th century, from his neighbor Anna Christina Olson, who suffered from polio. Taken by the woman’s spirit, Wyeth also featured Olson in several other paintings, such as “Christina Olson.” “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless,” said Wyeth of painting his muse.
Top Image: Andrew Wyeth as a young man in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Christian C. Sanderson