Celebrating the Life and Art of Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth was first introduced to watercolor by his father, the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and by one of his father’s friends, Sid Chase. He immediately began looking at the work of great watercolorists from the past, especially American artists who “lifted watercolor from the academic approach of the British and made it something freer,” he explained.
Among the first historic artists to inform and influence young Wyeth was Winslow Homer (1836–1910), whose work he first saw when visiting Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck, Maine.
“I never wanted to copy the work of other people, but I wanted to find the truth in nature that they were expressing—and then find my own truth,” he is says in the book Andrew Wyeth: Early Watercolors, by Susan Strickler (Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire). “So Homer led me on to something else. I got a direction that was authentic to me and to what I felt.”
As his interest in watercolor expanded, so did Wyeth’s awareness of other great artists who used the medium, particularly those who used it as freely and expressively as he did. He was especially interested in those who had developed a personal style and expanded their range of possibilities.
Wyeth met many of those artists, such as Edward Hopper, during trips to New York or summer excursions to Maine; and a number of others called on him in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
The enthusiasm that Andrew and Betsy Wyeth had for American painting is demonstrated through their foundation, The Wyeth Foundation for American Art. To this day, the Foundation provides substantial support for exhibitions, catalogues, research and acquisitions of American art.
Wyeth passed away in his sleep at the age of 91 on Jan. 16, 2009. To celebrate the life of such an incredible artist, read on for Wyeth’s 20 top watercolorists he shared with former editor M. Stephen Doherty, who was visiting the artist at his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in 2007, just two years before his death.
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A List of 20 Top Watercolorists
When I first proposed to Andrew Wyeth that he compose a list of 20 artists he thought to be among the greatest watercolorists, he considered both contemporary and historic practitioners.
“He’s concerned that limiting the list to historic figures would make it too short; and that adding contemporary painters would make it too long,” said his curator, Mary Landa. “He also worries about offending some good watercolorists he might not think about.”
I suggested he focus on historic painters and consider a long list I put together. By the time I visited Wyeth’s home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, back in 2007, he was feeling more confident about finalizing a list that would suggest to watercolor lovers what he felt was the hallmark of a great watercolor painting.
The final list of 20 great painters includes those who elevated the importance of watercolor and helped define a distinctly American attitude toward the medium, as well as artists who are less well-known yet offer a uniquely expressive approach to working with combinations of water-soluble paints.
The selection includes some obvious choices that would be on almost anyone’s roster—such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent—as well as artists like William Thon, Hardy Gramatky and Morris Graves, who reflect Wyeth’s age, experience and attitude.
Wyeth knew and admired several of the artists who shared his interest in expressive representation; and, in contrast, he felt no particular affinity with the abstract expressionists or the photo realists who painted in watercolor at roughly the same time he was working with the medium.
The point in formulating this list is to offer a broader view of watercolor than many people would associate with Wyeth. People often form the mistaken opinion that he gravitated toward the sentimental, pastoral or nostalgic.
However, a review of the vast number of watercolors he created since the late 1930s reveals he was often captivated by the power of nature, the transience of life, the juxtaposition of animate and inanimate forms, and the ability of watercolor to represent the soul of the artist. Those are often the qualities he admired in other artists’ paintings as well.
What’s clear is that no other contemporary artist has influenced the ways painters use watercolor as much as Wyeth did. His paintings have been so widely exhibited and reproduced over the past 60 years that almost every watercolorist has been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly.
This influence may come from direct experience, through teachers or fellow artists, or through collectors who measure every watercolorist against Wyeth.
Many artists have emulated the subject matter of Wyeth’s paintings, his palette of colors, his penchant for detail, his orientation toward personal themes or his willingness to express individual perceptions.
Anyone who has enjoyed such unprecedented success and had such a pervasive influence on generations of artists might be excused if he were arrogant, aloof, or remote. After all, celebrities in other fields are notoriously demanding.
Despite his fame, wealth and influence, Wyeth remained throughout the years the same person he was when he mounted his first exhibition of watercolors in 1938 at the age of 20.
Still late in life, he was a personable, caring and appreciative man who was just as excited about the freedom afforded by watercolor as he was when his father first encouraged him to use the paints.
Even with a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an exhibition of his drawings at the Brandywine River Museum in 2006–just a few years before his death in 2009–Wyeth was still most excited when sitting on the ground with a stack of watercolor paper in his lap, brushes and paints laid out by his side, and a tree or a figure posing in front of him.
He made similar comments about his love for watercolor when writing about the paintings reproduced in a book titled Andrew Wyeth Autobiography (Bulfinch Press, New York, New York).
“The only virtue to it is to put down an idea quickly without thought about what you feel at the moment. It’s one’s free side. Watercolor shouldn’t behave,” he commented in reference to Half Bushel, a painting of a basket lying under an apple tree, created in 1959. “You’re in the lap of the gods—almost like painting with your eyes half-closed.”
In reference to another watercolor, Wyeth wrote: “Sometimes I don’t want to see too clearly. You build up a kind of color that is purely an interpretation of the truth. Anything to get away from the predictable. This applies to the design of a picture, too.”
After all, he continued, “Painting is all about breaking the rules. Art is chance.”
Cheers to 100 years, Wyeth. Although you have been gone for almost a decade now, your art-filled legacy and passion for watercolor are eternal.
Peruse through the rest of Wyeth’s top watercolor artists, below, and be sure to let us know your favorites in the comments!
*Article contributions made by former Artist Daily editor, M. Stephen Doherty