Artist leaves his mark on coast, beyond

Posted Jan. 17, 2009, at 12:25 a.m.

Artist Andrew Wyeth was known to shun attention, preferring to paint in the quiet of Port Clyde, the islands of the Penobscot Bay and his hometown in Pennsylvania. A family friend recalled a sign outside his studio — unless it’s the Second Coming of Christ, don’t disturb.

Yet the last time Philip Conkling saw the venerable painter, Wyeth was standing in line at Wasses Hot Dog stand in Rockland.

“I think one of the reasons that Andy really enjoyed this part of the world is that people who knew him helped him travel inconspicuously,” said Conkling, president of the Rockland-based Island Institute of which Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, were founding members. “People who knew him knew not to make a fuss when he was around. So I think he was enormously grateful for that. He loved Wasses hot dogs, and there he was, standing in line. He loved that.”

Mainers who admired Wyeth’s art and others who saw the private side of the artist remembered Wyeth, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, after news of Wyeth’s death Friday morning was announced from his home in Pennsylvania.

Wyeth, 91, reportedly died in his sleep. Island Institute executive vice president Peter Ralston, a longtime family friend and former neighbor of the Wyeths in Chadds Ford, Pa., said Wyeth had been dealing with a brief undisclosed illness.

“Maine was in his blood,” Ralston said Friday as he drove south to be with the Wyeth family. “Maine and Chadds Ford. The man spent his entire life painting his world, and his world was a fairly narrow radius around his two homes. I pulled into the gas station in Camden this morning, [the attendant] told me they all love him down there [in Port Clyde].”

President Bush issued a statement of condolence Friday afternoon. Andrew Wyeth presented a painting titled “Jupiter” to the Bushes in 2005, and that work is now displayed in the family sitting room in the White House residence. Wyeth’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed by Maine’s politicians. Gov. John Baldacci, Sen. Susan Collins, and Sen. Olympia Snowe and her husband, former Gov. Jack McKernan, issued condolences.

Wyeth’s mark is all over coastal Maine, from the residents of Port Clyde to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, which bought its first Wyeth watercolors in 1944 and now has one of the largest Wyeth collections in the world.

Wyeth painted at Eight Bells, the Port Clyde studio of his father, painter N.C. Wyeth, who in the early 20th century started the family tradition of coming to Maine. Andrew Wyeth’s son Jamie, a well-known artist in his own right, has continued the tradition of his father and grandfather. Wyeth’s granddaughter Victoria Wyeth gives guided tours of the Farnsworth in the summer and does the same thing in the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford in winter.

Wyeth’s most famous work, the 1948 tempera painting “Christina’s World,” was painted in Cushing. The painting is now at the Museum of Modern Art and was on view as of Friday afternoon.

“Christina’s World” was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during a Wyeth retrospective in the 1970s, recalled Carl Little, a Maine art critic and author who has included Wyeth’s work in his books. Little worked behind a Met sales desk at the time.

“I was always amazed how many people came up to the desk and would ooh and aah, buy a “Christina’s World” postcard to take home as a souvenir,” Little said. “I think it’s one of the iconic stories of American art.”

A spokesman for the Farnsworth Art Museum, which displayed “Christina’s World” in 2000, said visitors were starting to arrive Friday afternoon after hearing the news.

“I would say for many years, the most requested artist when people come to our museum would be Andrew Wyeth,” David Troup said. “Many people come specifically for that reason, [with Wyeth] having such a long connection.”

The Farnsworth also operates the Wyeth Center and the Olson House, the site of “Christina’s World” and the home of Christina Olson and her brother, Alvaro, in Cushing.

The work Wyeth did at the Olson House is reflective of his treatment of Maine people.

“His portraits of local residents, including Christina Olsen, are just really amazing,” Little said. “There’s this kind of respect and honor for people who are not celebrities, who are just any of your neighbors. I think that’s part of his legacy for sure.”

Wyeth’s respect for the people of Maine, especially island-dwellers and others living on the fringes, may have led to his involvement with the Island Institute. Conkling said Andrew and Betsy tried, among other projects, to encourage researchers to use data and observations from fishermen in their work.

In 1980 the Wyeths bought Allen Island, off Port Clyde, where the Island Institute did much of its work.

“They were all about people, and that vision helped inform ours at the institute,” Ralston said. “Our mission statement hasn’t changed since the day it was created. It’s helping sustain the working waterfronts, and we haven’t moved one degree off that mission. They both poured a lot of energy and thinking and creativity into it.”

Little said Wyeth also brought to life Maine in colder months, when many artists left the state for their studios in warmer climes.

“His landscapes can be quite beautiful but they can also be very severe,” he said. “He wasn’t afraid of showing the cold, severe quality the landscape can have. I think of him as an off-season painter rather than the more traditional landscape [painters] of Maine. He was attracted to the bones, the weeds and sort of the cold landscape in a lot of ways. It’s also true for his work in Pennsylvania.”

Although Wyeth at times was ignored and criticized for an excess of sentimentalism by the New York art world, Little called him a virtuoso whose early watercolors were “amazing” and an artist who furthered the technique of egg tempera, which he used in “Christina’s World.”

“I think at his best, his realism, the precision of detail, certainly compares to any of the great realists in the history of the art,” said Little, who recalled speaking out when the Whitney Museum in New York left Wyeth out of a retrospective of 20th century art. “Wyeth was their equal, I would say. He’s the kind of artist you look at and ask does this guy have a deal with the devil. How does he represent that pair of boots, that shell, that curtain waving in the wind? It’s pretty amazing.”

Wyeth’s death is much more personal for Ralston, who has known the Wyeths since he was a 6-year-old in Chadds Ford. The Wyeths, he said, introduced him to Maine in the late 1970s, and he has photographed many of Wyeth’s paintings.

“Andy was a lot of fun,” Ralston said. “He was incredibly generous, intensely private. He didn’t want the world bothering him. Yet nobody loved a good time more than Andy. He could tell stories with the best of them. He was a great, elegant, powerful combination of contrasts.”

jbloch@bangordailynews.net

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