ANDREW WYETH: A SECRET LIFE
A Review by Douglas Wiltraut
Explosive and colorful as one of Wyeths early watercolors, Meryman will have even the most ardent followers of Wyeth running for cover. Meryman has revealed heretofore unknown facts which had been the privileged information of only the closest confidants of the family and we are left feeling like a Wyeth family psychiatrist who has just been told some of the familys darkest and most disturbing secrets. The revelations will intrigue some, repulse others but will ultimately unveil the cloak of mystery that has surrounded this most famous of American artistic families.
Beginning with his free spirited youth, we see a young
boy given the freedom to roam over the fields and woods where he lived,
carefree, whose sole purpose was to absorb the land and people, imagination
being his sole companion. Somewhat sickly and held back from formal
education, he was raised in a home saturated with all of the props
and stimulation necessary to develop a fertile artistic imagination
and was the obvious choice of a father who made a conscious effort
to develop him into the artist to carry on the Wyeth artistic
During this time, we see Wyeth torn in a struggle between
his feelings for his father toward whom he had an unadulterated love
but for whom he also held a resentment for being overbearing and protective.
As with many children from large families, Wyeth evidently bore scars
from his perceived neglect from a family in which he felt overlooked
and who harbored jealousies of the trappings bestowed upon his siblings.
Fragile as the eggshells that later would lie under his easel, Wyeth
seemed deeply affected by an incident whereby he experienced the physical
discipline at the hand of the father he adored. Increasingly, escapism
became the path he followed into his own dream world where, fueled
by an unfettered imagination and the keen eye of a trained observer,
he became an almost invisible presence in his surroundings.
Meryman, the son of a painter himself, has painted a
literary egg tempera portrait of Wyeth complete with a multitude of
layers and minute detail. To the Wyeth devotee, there are quotations
and passages we have heard before but there is also a wealth of newly
revealed information. We see Andrews early years following the
successes of his first New York shows, struggling, facing the reality
of the difficulty in making a living from painting fine art and the
surprising number of commercial jobs he accepted to pay the bills.
During this period we see the strength of Betsy developing as she
frowned upon him accepting these
As his fathers work faltered and his influence over Andrew waned, we see Andrew developing a hatred for the social elite and monetary possessions which he felt dealt the death blow to his fathers art. Upon the tragic death of his father the missing ingredient, a reason for painting, became a reality. From this point onward, Wyeths growth curve as an artist is unparalleled as a force and maturity invaded his work and impregnated his panels with depth and emotion. Faced with the reality of not having painted his father while he was alive, a sense of guilt and rage grew and he was forced once again to discover a surrogate model, one who would fit the bill of encompassing the dichotomy of his fathers cruelty and love. He discovered this duality in his German neighbor Karl Kuerner. As the models served as a vehicle for his imagination, Wyeth, like a method actor, would become the models themselves during his Zen-like painting states. At times Wyeth almost became closer to his models than to his own family members.
In later years, feeling that his fathers devotion to his large family sapped his artistic energy, Wyeth developed a disdain for marriage, particularly for artists, stating that, the bachelor Winslow Homer had been the only wise artist." This feeling grew as Betsy became the domineering force that his father had been and culminated in Wyeth not attending his son Nickys wedding. As many of his models passed away his art took a new direction in the form of the nudes he began painting of a young neighbor girl in Maine named Siri. His marriage seemed to suffer as conflicts and jealousies developed. Wishing to avoid the turmoil of the Siri experience, Wyeth was forced deeper into his world of secrecy as he continued to explore his interest in painting the nude. He entered into a fifteen year journey by painting a body of work of just one model, Helga, which he kept hidden from everyone. The media circus which surrounded the eventual release of the Helga paintings soured Wyeth to the art world causing him to pull all of his work off the art market. We are also witnesses to the failed attempts of people as diverse as Robert Frost and Michael Jackson at having their portraits painted by him. His rise to international fame and popularity among the American masses contrasts with the scorn of armies of art critics.
What Meryman has done is peel back the veneer of carefully
orchestrated interviews and calculated publicity which had always
protected Wyeth and now, for the first time, explores the dark underpainting
of his life which contains the abstract flashes of a madman. Exposing
a life as choppy as the waters off the Maine coast, Meryman bares
Wyeths soul and takes a piercing look into the depths of the
undercurrents that flow beneath the surface of the realism which his
critics find so distasteful. Some Wyeth followers may become
The classic isolationist, his aloneness, which is interpreted
as loneliness in his work, became all consuming, alienating him from
even those who loved him. We are offered a glimpse into the inner
sanctums of Wyeths domain where constant turmoil flows as a
troubled torrent beneath the surface of what most people view as serene
paintings. This book will change some preconceived opinions of Wyeth,
some good some bad, but no opinion of the man will change the art
and in the final analysis, that is all that is important. Wyeth shared
this belief and in response to rejecting a request to paint Robert
Merymans account is not just a book for Wyethphiles
but for anyone who wants to be, like Wyeth, a voyeur, peering in and
witnessing the struggles and glories of this most remarkable American
artist. A true portrait, complete with all of the layers, the detail,
the emotion and, in some spots, scraped right down to the bare gesso.
This book is the proverbial missing link for any home Wyeth library.
©Copyright 2004 Douglas Wiltraut. All rights reserved.