Thursday, August 19, 2010

Andrew Wyeth, Spindrift, 1950

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), the painter of Christina’s World, drew inspiration from wells of emotion and abstraction.

Wyeth called this painting, titled Spindrift (1950) (and another gem from New Hampshire’s Currier Museum of Art) a “portrait” of his Maine neighbor’s boat. It’s done in tempera, not oil, so the colors are muted and the finish is matte.

Half in and half out of the water, housing a bucket of freshly harvested oysters, the boat has the feeling of being left only recently. Long hard use has battered the oars, the sea and weather have worn the boat’s paint off, and years of oarlock rust have stained the boards. Painted horizontally, without the linear interest an unusual perspective would provide, the boat seems at once stately and somehow naked. The painting gives one an odd eavesdropping feeling, like sneaking a look at somebody’s kitchen or bedroom when they aren’t there.

To the left of the hull we glimpse the silhouette of a swallow in flight, providing a counterpoint of motion to the stationery dory. This dynamic is played out in the entire work; the whole painting preserves a tidal balance between motion and tranquility apropos of an object whose owner is absent yet “present” in the object itself, and soon to return at that.

What makes it so strangely moving is the carefully controlled tonality of the work. The lack of intense color suggests a somber, possibly symbolic role for the open boat: poised between motion and immobility, the cold grays of the ocean and the warmer grays of the sand, life (the quick-passing swallow) and death (the dour wash of grays, the absence, the wear).

Wyeth wrote of it: “Henry Teel would come in from hauling lobster pots about 10:30 in the morning, pull his dory up on the beach, stow his oars and tackle neatly, and go indoors to cook himself a meal. This is a portrait of Henry without showing the man himself: these are all the things he used, shaped by his life and by the sea.”

I think Wyeth painted primarily two things: light in the present that made his heart leap and objects whose glory lay in the past, things that told him about time, and loss, things that told about the people whose lives came close to his. He was more emotional than Hopper, investing rural American objects and architecture with the adagio of a minor-key sonata.

He’s a bit like Robert Frost in that many people love him because he’s accessible and so clearly steeped in unpretentious rural American iconography, but his work is actually darker and more disturbing than most people realize. He could choose the simplest, humblest objects for his paintings because his depth of feeling, his existential intuition of death and emptiness, and his sense of underlying geometric abstraction were so united and so complex.

Wyeth’s work urges us to reconsider the still unexplored possibilities for meaning of which representational painting is capable, despite the time's abstract and conceptual post-representational bias.


  1. Excellent post my friend. Wyeth is a huge influence and inspiration for me personally and its nice to read something like this that acknowledges him for the deep, introspective painter that he was. His work was a balance of simplicity and profound meditative reflection. He's so often passed off as "the guy who paints every blade of grass"...Not fair. This fella was the real article of many deep layers.

  2. Absolutely. And do you have to be born with that depth of feeling to be a real artist of "may deep layers?" No, I don't think so. After all, Andrew himself confessed that he was just a crackshot watercolorist until his father's death slammed him face to face with his own mortality. After that, he *really* had a reason to paint. Life experiences and what we do with them as individuals do much to make us who we are and what we can become.

  3. "the adagio of a minor key sonata"
    wonderful use of language!

  4. I bought a huge framed print of this at a tag sale for $2, framed for $379 receipt attached, wife hated it so husband sold it!!! I'm confused though, mine is definitely blue, not sepia, can you explain?? Thanks

  5. My print from the 70s (labeled No. 1179 by the Currier Gallery) isn’t really sepia but a grey with a tint of green. Probably just the difference in printers/ink and fade through the years.

  6. How much is the photo worth with the gray colors and signed?