In the 1940s, the pioneering developments in American art were not welcomed by everyone. The rise of the Abstract Expressionists, with their seeming rejection of middle-class values and ideals, caused concern among conservative Americans. Arguments about art began to extend beyond painting to societal splits along class, geographical and educational lines. While the critics championed revolutionaries like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the US public became enamoured of a realist painter called Andrew Wyeth.
Born into a large family in Pennsylvania, Wyeth’s father was an illustrator who taught his young son to draw. So good was Wyeth that by the age of 19 he was having his first exhibition in Philadelphia. His reputation continued to grow and at the age of 26 he was included in the MOMA exhibition, Americans 1943: Realists and Magic Realists.
Wyeth’s style was traditional: he was inspired by Winslow Homer and the Victorian age of narrative painting. He depicted an America of hunters, farmers and country folk. It was a highly evocative vision that captured the essence of old frontier values; the loneliness of the labourer’s existence, his battle with nature and will to survive.
His most famous painting, Christina’s World (1948), was made in 1948, and depicted a young woman, disabled by polio, crawling through long grass towards a weathered farmstead. It was much loved by the public but divided the critics, many of whom dismissed it as sentimental. So fervent was the debate that in 1977, when the art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked to name the most underrated and most overrated artists of the 20th century, he nominated Andrew Wyeth for both categories.
In the 1980s, a series of portraits Wyeth made of his neighbour, Helga Testorf, emerged. They had been painted in secret and later provoked controversy for their intimate nature. One of these works, Day Dream (1980), set a world record price for the artist at Christie’s in 2022, selling for $23,290,000 as part of Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection.
In 2007, Wyeth received the National Medal of Arts from George W. Bush. He died at the age of 91 in 2009.