Colin Leath
Art History 203
    Andrew Wyeth is one of America's most prominent artists. I will be discussing his work, and specifically one of his watercolors, The German (1975, Watercolor, Private Collection), from an expressionist point of view.
    Expressionism is one of the four general attitudes towards art during the Modernist period. Modernism is an artistic and cultural period from the late 1700's to ca. 1975. It is defined by the emergence of specific institutions and attitudes. These attitudes are formalism, instrumentalism, expressionism, and naturalism. These attitudes help to shape the canon of art history. (definitions, Art History 203 course packet)
    As a general attitude to art, Expressionism stresses the idea that art can and should express the emotions of the artist or evoke emotions in the viewer. (definitions, Art History 203 course packet). This means that a work of art can be seen in two ways from the Expressionist viewpoint. One consideration is the emotion the artist expresses in the work. The other consideration is the emotion the work will evoke in the viewer.
    In discussing Wyeth's work, it is most appropriate to concentrate on the first of these considerations. This is because Wyeth himself says he paints for himself. He will see something for just an instant, feel a shiver of excitement run through him and say, “heh, christ, there it is—”[1]. He wants to preserve for himself and explore for himself that fleeting emotion, the happening of an instant that caused in him such powerful feelings and associations. “My struggle is preserve that abstract flash— like something you caught out of the corner of your eye, but in the picture you can look at it directly.”[5] Each of his works is a climax of years of living. All his past memory and experience of the objects he depicts are condensed into a single image.
    It is the intense emotion, memories and associations he expresses in his paintings that make them great. “One's art goes as far and as deep as one's love goes.”[1] “The commonplace is the thing, but it is hard to find. Then if you believe in it, have a love for it, this specific thing will become a universal.”[1] The volume of feeling in his work makes it one of the most condensed expressions of life. And life is the greatest universal of all.
    In his painting, Wyeth explores the associations that culminated in that first powerful feeling. This exploration sustains and develops the original emotion. One example of this is his painting, Spring Fed (1967, Tempera, Private Collection).
    “I started Spring Fed because I was taken by the remarkable variety of sounds in the Kuerner barn. One day I became conscious of the sound of the running, trickling water all around the place. Suddenly it dawned upon me one cold winter morning how amazing that sound was, and I went into the milk room... I stepped inside the milk room where they keep the fresh milk cold and here was that continuous water running from the spring which is way up on the Kuerners' hill, trickling way down and in and running out over the side of the cement trough. The whole quality of the distance of the phenomenon and the bucket hanging there like a helm, a knight's helm, fascinated me. I was caught, too, by the clang of buckets, that strange hollow sound of metal....”[5]

Every detail of the painting, the cattle in the background, the bubbling of the water, the shadows, the shininess of the metal, is part of the whole feeling Wyeth is trying to express.
    In addition to exploring the emotion of an instant, Wyeth is concerned with conveying the original emotion in the culmination of his work. “The way I feel about things is so much better than the way I've been able to paint them. The image I had in my head is not quite— never quite completely conveyed in paint.”[3] “I'll get it in a preliminary drawing, but then the more finished a painting will be in the end, the more I've got to get that momentary off balance quality in the very base of the thing. For that it's got to be completely out of my control. When you spend a month on a tempera you've got to watch out that the mind doesn't take over the emotion. I do wild things— if somebody saw me, they'd think I was nuts, ruining it. Then I haul it back in, bring the forms and bones into reality and shapes— refine it. If it's all just a placid development, to hell with that. You'll get a normal regular painting.”[5]
    Wyeth has long been considered a realist, and this is because he seeks to express his feelings with images that are very real, but this is where his realism ends. “If somehow I can, before I leave this earth, combine my absolute mad freedom and excitement with truth, then I will have done something.”[5] Wyeth seldom depicts reality exactly as it is, and very often his paintings bear little resemblance to the environment which inspired him. Wyeth's paintings are his own reality, a reality he creates to best express his feelings. In his tempera, Brown Swiss, Wyeth removed the cows that originally inspired the painting. He expresses their presence with the tracks on the hill above the pond, and with the texture and color of the hill itself. “I wanted it to be almost like the tawny brown pelt of a Brown Swiss bull.”[5] While he appreciates abstractionist art, he asks, “why can't we have reality too so we can understand it?  Does it have to be gibberish?”[1]. He has also said, “Abstractionists are the conservatives, and I'm the modernist.”[5] And finally, “I honestly consider myself an abstractionist”[5]. Clearly, “realist” is the wrong label for Wyeth.
    Wyeth's art can be better understood if we consider how he was raised. His father felt emotion, association, and memory are the most valuable part of life. “Anything less than total emotional involvement in work and in play is a denial of human life it self”[1]. Once N.C. Wyeth wrote proudly of his children, “...they show an ability that will always give them a foundation reason why it is worthwhile to live, and secondly as they weave the textures of their lives the background of their memories will give them untold pleasures, and perhaps the basis upon which they can build an important life work.”[1] N.C. stressed the importance of the “sensing of new impressions and memory of old ones”[1]. He felt it was valuable “to obtain the utmost of pleasure and inspiration from the simplest and homeliest events of life around you”[1] because “the limitless ocean itself, the mountains and valleys of the world are of no greater importance in appearance or significance”[1]. N.C. wanted his children to be homesick when they left, and they were.

    This brings us to the fact that Wyeth lives and paints almost exclusively within a few miles of his home in Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania and his home in Cushing, Maine. This should not seem unusual when we consider the depth of emotion involved in Wyeth's work. Wyeth has concentrated on very few subjects for years, exploring all aspects of the emotion they cause in him.
    One of these subjects is the Kuerner farm in Pennsylvania, a German household near the railroad crossing where his father and one of his brother's sons were killed by a train. Wyeth's work covers many aspects of the farm, but the one to be discussed here is Karl Kuerner.  The German, one of Wyeth's portraits of Karl is expressive of how Wyeth felt towards Karl and his farm.

    It is a shocking painting, first because a cool, cold eyed German soldier in winter stands out among Wyeth's farmhouses and fields and country people, and second because of the contrast of the colors. The red in the collar of the coat and the blue in the German's eyes are among the brightest colors to be seen in Wyeth's work.
    Wyeth's portraits are not simply a visual depiction of the subject, but an expression of his affection for and vivid memory of the person. “I don't think I'm really a portrait painter, because I only use a head to express something more. And if a pain ting stays just a head, I'm not satisfied with it. If it's an outdoor person, I feel that his countenance reflects the skies he walks under, the clouds have reflected on his face for his whole life and I try to get that quality into the portrait. It's like painting the sky. To me, a sky and a landscape are together. One reflects the other. They both merge.”[1]
    In The German this is clear. The significance of this painting goes back to Wyeth's childhood. He grew up during the time period between the two world wars, and his early drawings show a fascination with knights, soldiers and battlefields. While Karl objected to his portraits having a morbid tone, all of Wyeth's depiction's of him suggest potential violence. In Karl (1948, Tempera, Private Collection) we are looking up at a stern faced Karl and two black claw-like hooks in the ceiling. In The Kuerners (1971, Dry brush, Private Collection), Karl is posing with his new high powered rifle which is pointed behind him directly at his wife. In addition to the obvious subject of war in The German, the blue eyes remind us of the ideal of the Aryan race, and the red collar suggests the blood spilled for that ideal.
    This exploration of violence is partly related to the violent death of his father on the nearby railroad crossing, and also to his fascination with the dichotomies of Karl's character:

“I started thinking about Karl a few days after my father's death. Karl believes very strongly in the supernatural. That always interests me.  How a person as hard-boiled as this... I've seen him slaughtering animals. He can be brutal and sentimental He's very cruel, you know. He told me how he mowed down a line of Americans in the First World War, then lowered the sights of the machine gun and went over them again. Then in the springtime he comes over to give us the first snowdrops.”[1]
    Karl had been a machine gunner and was proud to relate that he had been decorated by the Crown Prince during the first world war. Karl also had a cool efficiency evidenced in aspects of his management of the farm.  As soon as any tree showed a sign of disease it was cut down (see Ground Hog Day 1959, Tempera, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Karl called all his German Shepherds 'Nellie', because a shepherd always calls his dog by the same name. Wyeth also describes how the farm was built by German prisoners of war. All these stories suggest why Wyeth painted Karl as a soldier, perhaps a sentry, with cold, blue watching eyes. It is clearly a depiction of Wyeth's memories, associations and feelings about Karl.
    Another aspect of the painting is Wyeth's effort to save it from a merely technical success. After he had worked a while on the portrait he realized that he had a good head, but the picture was missing something.  Taking a chance, he poured a bottle of black ink on the top of the paper and let it drip down and across the picture. Some of the drips became the trunks of the trees. That action, Wyeth believes, is what made this painting. The black at the top gives The German a contrast and definition it would not otherwise have had.
    In conclusion, we have seen how personal expression and exploration are the basis for Wyeth's work. We have seen how he uses real looking objects to communicate his feelings. Specifically, in his watercolor, The German, Wyeth expresses his feelings towards Karl Kuerner. We saw how he manipulated reality to better communicate those feelings.
The German (1975, Watercolor, Private Collection)
here's another I've found:
Braids (1979, Tempera, Private Collection)
Document 1
Author:       Corn, Wanda M.
Title:        The art of Andrew Wyeth [by] Wanda M. Corn. With contributions
              by Brian O'Doherty, Richard Meryman [and] E P. Richardson.
Pub. Info.:   Greenwich, Conn., Published for the Fine Arts Museums of
              San Francisco by the New York Graphic Society [1973].
LC Subject:   Wyeth-Andrew-1917-.
Status:       Art General Stacks
                ND237.W93 C67
Document 2
Author:      Patin, Tom
Title:          Art History 203 - Course Packet.
Status:        Undergraduate Reserve
        UGRES N203 P65t
Document 3
Author:       Wilmerding, John.
Title:        Andrew Wyeth : the Helga pictures / text by John Wilmerding.
Pub. Info.:   New York : H.N. Abrams, 1987.
LC Subject:   Wyeth-Andrew-1917- -- Criticism-and-interpretation.
              Wyeth-Andrew-1917- -- Relations-with-women.
              Testorf-Helga -- Portraits.
              Andrews-Leonard-E-B -- Art-collections.
              Art -- Private-collections -- Pennsylvania.
Status:       Art General Stacks
                N6537.W86 W55 1987
Document 4
Author:       Wyeth, Andrew, 1917-.
Title:        Wyeth at Kuerners.
Pub. Info.:   Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
LC Subject:   Wyeth-Andrew-1917-.
              Kuerner-Karl-1898- -- Portraits.
              Kuerner-Anna -- Portraits.
Status:       Art General Stacks
                ND237.W93 W93 LIBRARY USE ONLY
Document 5
Author:       Wyeth, Andrew, 1917-.
Title:        Two worlds of Andrew Wyeth : a conversation with Andrew Wyeth /
              by Thomas Hoving.
Pub. Info.:   Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1978, c1976.
LC Subject:   Wyeth-Andrew-1917-.
Status:       Art General Stacks
                ND237.W93 A4 1978

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