Wyeth's revealing portrait of the unseen

This may be one of the most unusual "self-portraits" ever painted. The head, the face, the mouth, the eyes - when Jamie Wyeth portrays an animal or a human, he studies these features with the meticulous attention of an ant exploring a fallen tree trunk. He investigates faces with an inborn conviction that this is where he will find inner secrets.

But when Wyeth came to paint himself, the exercise turned into an act of ironic self-effacement.

He tells the story. Elected a member of the National Academy of Design, he was expected to submit a self-portrait. "I labored for months, attempting to paint myself. Bored and exasperated, I popped a pumpkin over my head. Consumed with excitement and delighted that the leering grin of a vegetable replaced my banal features, I completed the portrait in a few days. I sent it to the academy as my 'diploma' portrait and they rejected it as 'inappropriate.' "

Presumably they found it more of a trick than a treat, uncertain how serious an artist could be who turned himself - even if only from the shoulders up - into a pumpkin.

But Wyeth is undoubtedly a serious artist, and this use of his dateless kind of realism to depict such a surreal image paradoxically discloses more about himself than he was able to convey by gazing at his own features.

He is in Halloween costume, perhaps; but the effect is unsettling rather than merely comic. The isolated figure, standing in a chilly landscape on feet cut off by the bottom of the canvas, is as disguised by his dark New England preacher garb as his face is by the pumpkin. The only unhidden parts are his well-used hands. They hang down out of coat sleeves too short for warmth.

If you found this "boy" standing unexpectedly at your door after dark today, would you give him some candy? If you were a hungry crow, would you fly off scared? Some such suggestions are contained in this self-portrait, perhaps. But in essence it is a slightly haunting picture of someone who doesn't really want to be seen.

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