ROCKLAND, Maine — Peter Ralston remembers the unsettled feeling he had when he approached Betsy Wyeth a few months ago with an idea for 25th edition of the Island Journal, an annual publication put out by the Island Institute.
A noted photographer and longtime family friend of Betsy Wyeth and her husband, iconic painter Andrew Wyeth, Ralston wanted to publish a folio of Wyeth’s works. One of the paintings Ralston wanted to include was Wyeth’s final work, completed three months before his death on Jan. 16 at the age of 91.
“I really swallowed hard and summoned up the nerve to ask Betsy if we could publish this last piece of his,” Ralston, the institute’s executive vice president, said Saturday afternoon in the Island Institute offices. “Bless her heart, she said yes.”
That final work, a tempera painting titled “Goodbye, My Love” painted in Wyeth’s studio in Port Clyde, was unveiled to the world through a color photograph in the Island Journal during a reception held Saturday for the journal’s release.
Few people have seen the painting itself. It was on display for a few days after Wyeth’s death at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., where Wyeth was born and the place, aside from Maine, with which the Wyeth family is closely associated.
Ralston said the Wyeth family otherwise has not released the painting, so it cannot be seen in any other publication. The Wyeths were among the first supporters of and contributors to the nonprofit Island Institute, founded by Philip Conkling and Ralston in 1983 to sustain Maine’s year-round island and coastal communities.
Dozens of people crowded into the Island Institute’s small lobby and gallery space Saturday and snapped up copies of the Island Journal, flipping to the Wyeth folio and an accompanying essay by Chris Crosman, former director of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
“I really can’t tell you, would we ever do another folio of Andy’s work? I don’t see it,” Ralston told the crowd before a community toast to the Wyeths. “But most notable in this [publication] — and that [for] which I am possibly most grateful to Betsy — is she allowed us to reproduce Andy’s last painting, ‘Goodbye.’ Formally it’s ‘Goodbye, My Love,’ [but] we’re all calling it ‘Goodbye.’”
The reception was one activity held this weekend in honor of the legendary Wyeth,whose family lives part of the year on Allen Island. Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son and a famous painter in his own right, attended an event at the Strand Theater in Rockland earlier Saturday afternoon along with Gov. John Baldacci. The Maine Legislature is considering a bill that would create Wyeth Day each July 12.
“Andrew Wyeth, and all the Wyeths have shared their understanding and vision of Maine people and land and seascapes with people around the globe,” Baldacci said in a statement released Sunday.
“Goodbye, My Love,” which is almost 3 feet by 4 feet in size and was painted in Port Clyde, depicts an antique Friendship sloop moving past a sail loft along the shore of Allen Island, according to Crosman’s essay.
Trailed by a smooth wake on glassy water, the boat is sailing out of the frame of the picture.
It’s tempting to assign a meaning to the painting but Michael Komanecky, the Farnsworth’s chief curator and interim director, cautioned against assuming anything about the work.
“I think one of the attractions of Andy’s work is that it leaves itself open to what the viewer brings to it,” Komanecky said Saturday. “You can read this in either a very literal way or a very symbolic way, and I think ambiguity is something that he wanted to put there.”
Ralston, who said he had lunch with the Wyeths the day Andrew Wyeth put the finishing touches on “Goodbye, My Love” but did not see the painting that day, thinks that in later years Wyeth must have sensed he was working on his last paintings.
“I have a pretty good hunch what it’s all about, but I think, like so much that Andy painted over the years, it’s very much a self-portrait,” Ralston said. “Everything he painted was about what was deep within his life. If you look at some of his last paintings, it was not lost on Andy that the sand was running through the hourglass.”
Ruth Noonan had that sense, too. Noonan, a resident of Reading, Pa., who was visiting friends in Boothbay for the holiday weekend, said she saw “Goodbye, My Love” in person. She said she saw the painting in person at the end of January in Pennsylvania.
“[The painting] is very moving,” said Noonan, who reached into the pocket of her handbag and pulled out a photograph she took in August 2007 of Wyeth smiling from the passenger seat of a vehicle in Port Clyde, and another photograph taken in Pennsylvania of a woman with light red hair who Noonan said was Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s neighbor in Chadds Ford and the subject of Wyeth’s Helga pctures.
“Even if it wasn’t titled [‘Goodbye’] you know because you see the back of a sailboat sailing away,” Noonan continued. “You kind of wonder if he knew that was going to be his last. I’ve always loved his work, and it is an incredible painting.”
Although Wyeth was born in Chadds Ford, he chose to be buried in Cushing, Ralston said, down the hill from the Olson House depicted in his famous 1948 painting “Christina’s World,” where Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro Olson also are buried.
Ralston has no idea of the plans for “Goodbye, My Love,” which he said is in a private collection, or whether it will be displayed in Maine anytime soon.
“I hope it will,” Ralston said. “I hope it will come back to Maine, just like Andy.”
The Island Journal is $24.95 and is available at www.islandinstitute.org or the Island Institute’s Archipelago store at 386 Main St., Rockland.