by Richard Meryman

A Review by Douglas Wiltraut
An edited version of this review appeared in
the April 1997 issue of American Artist magazine

Explosive and colorful as one of Wyeth’s 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 family’s 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
legacy. Under his father’s strict tutelage, he was taken into the studio where as a child he had witnessed the creation of many of the characters which inhabited the books his father illustrated and he was subjected to years of rigid academic training.

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.

He developed an uncanny sense of the importance of the people, places and events that affected his life. Wyeth adopted these people and places as surrogate models into which he would infuse the personalities of the characters in his father’s illustrations. With a father who was maniacal in his disdain for anything which diverted Andrew’s attention from his painting, we see Wyeth inwardly rebelling against his father who loathed his natural teenage interests in girls or any other outside distractions. When Betsy entered his life and
began to exert her own influence over Andrew, it seemed to have the same impact that Yoko Ono had on the Beatles. Feeling it would destroy his art, his father was against his impending marriage and even offered to build him a studio and support him if he did not get married. Thus the Battle of the Brandywine which he acted out as a boy became a reality in his own life in the form of the tug-of-war struggle which existed between his new wife and father. Here we see Andrew, so independent as a child, being manipulated, tragically, first by his father and then by Betsy, both who seemed to revel in having control and power over him. How Wyeth was able to withstand the stress of the situation lies in his ability to escape into the world we see in his paintings.

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 Andrew’s 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
assignments and her influence upon his work became greater. As Betsy’s dominance grew and Wyeth’s insecurities surfaced stemming from his lack of formal education, Betsy took over all aspects of business to the point where, surprisingly, she was titling paintings including “Christina’s World”.

As his father’s 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 father’s art. Upon the tragic death of his father the missing ingredient, a reason for painting, became a reality. From this point onward, Wyeth’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 Nicky’s 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 Wyeth’s 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
reincarnated Turncoats, abhorring his behavior and morals. However, the book is an in-depth study of the ambiguities of Wyeth the man, full of the contrasts which mark his work. He is portrayed as a tragic figure, filled with hate and rage, a victim of overly protective manipulators who forced him to seek out a life of escapism, of aloneness, which is where, in the end, he seems to find himself.

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 Wyeth’s 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 Frost’s
portrait he said, “The art, the poetry, is the purest form. Not the man.” This is the measuring stick by which we must measure Wyeth.

Meryman’s 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.