A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I was about 14, I discovered Andrew Wyeth from a book in my school library. To say I was stunned doesn’t quite cover it. The isolation and timelessness of his paintings, with a seemingly limited color scheme pulled me in. The intricate detail that added to the atmosphere, the people who had obviously lived hard lives, the endless winter feeling, it all just bowled me over. I knew, even at the time, that I could never paint like that, yet I felt connected to Wyeth’s work in a way that I still can’t explain.
So I was thrilled to find this newer book, from a 1998 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which focuses on his landscapes. Better yet, one third of the watercolors in the show had never been shown before. The book is oversized and laid out in a horizontal format to best suit the landscapes. The paintings go back to the 1930’s, though they aren’t arranged chronologically, but rather loosely into subjects.
Most surprising is the early watercolors of seascapes (one of which graces the book’s cover), where he uses a lot of deep blue, a color he returned to in lighter shades at the end of his life. By the ’40’s the familiar palette of browns, ochre and greys had taken over and Wyeth had begun working in egg tempera and getting more detailed with it. His figures at this time resembles those of Thomas Hart Benton, but soon his signature style emerges.
This book mixes his egg temperas, of which he only did 4 per year at most, with a variety of watercolors and dry brush, which sometimes added up to a hundred a year, many of them done outside in all weathers. Some are nearly abstract, a startling contrast with his detailed reputation, while others are complete works in themselves. Many are studies for his temperas, or working out of ideas and provide an exciting ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of how he planned his compositions. I am continually amazed at how he kept the energy of a piece after doing such intricate preliminary studies before doing an equally detailed final painting. It was also interesting to see how ideas changed as he worked on them. For instance, in “Tree House”(1982), a painting featuring a large shadow of a pine tree on a white house, there are more windows in the finished picture, with a person looking out of one, which is almost overlooked.
Speaking of trees, they were my favorite subjects in this book, especially the sycamores and buttonwood trees. There was also two exceptions to the landscapes featured, a close-up of a sculpin fish and a partly finished group of mussels still in their bed. Both were masterful reminders that Wyeth had the talent to paint anything he chose.
As befitting a catalog for an exhibition, there were a few essays by museum folks with quotes and anecdotes of the artist, but these are mere accents. The bulk of the book is given over to the stark landscapes that has so entranced me since my teens, the ones that beckon with such vibrant loneliness and mystery.
distributed by Harry N. Abrams 1998 224 pp.