Jamie Wyeth -- his father's son, but his own man too
Philadelphia — To be born into the "first family" of American painting is a mixed blessing, as Jamie Wyeth discovered. He is the son of America's foremost realist painter, Andrew Wyeth, and grandson of the renowned illustrator N. C. Wyeth, so the youngest Wyeth's painterly pedigree is pure thoroughbred. But while the name Wyeth is an "open Sesame" to gallery doors (Jamie has his first show at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York before he was 20), it is no guarantee of critical acclaim. Andrew, after all, is a tough act to follow.
The exhibition on view at the Penssylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the most comprehensive ever held on the East Coast of the 34-year-old artist's work, offers a fascinating opportunity to study the influence of the father upon the son and the effort of the son to transform that influence into an original statement.
Born in Chadds Ford, Pa., James Browning Wyeth dropped out of school at the end of the sixth grade and began his artistic apprenticeship in the European tradition.First he studied under his aunt, the painter Carolyn Wyeth, then under his illustrious father. He absorbed not only their influences but those of the Brandywine River School, founded in 1900 by Howard Pyle, who was his grandfather's teacher. After three years with his father, Jamie headed for New york to forge his independence.
Like his father, Jamie is a realist who paints nature with the fidelity of a draftsman and a disciple. Pervading the work of both artists is the same love ofthe land -- the verdant Pennsylvania farm country and rocky coast of Maine, where they spent their summers. Both share an infatuatin with air and light, the atmosphere that the scene projects -- Lawrence Durrell called it "the spirit of place."
Whether he is painting a landscape, a portrait, or a lowly pail of whitewash, Jamie inherited or learned from his father the ability to telescope the particular into a panoramic vision. In his paintings the background -- wicker chairs surrounding a small dog ("angeload") or a flock of grackles buzzing a herd of Angus ("Grackles and Angus") -- is no less important than the subject, and it is this compositional unity that gives his paintings their abstract quality.
But as much as Jamie assimilated from his father, he is more interesting when he uses that legacy to differ rather than to defer. Jamie, for example, tends to be much more emotionally involved in his subject matter. In Andrew's work there is an impression of almost photographic detachment, the self-effacement of one who happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture a moment. Jamie, on the other hand, introduces his feelings much more freely, with the result that in his portraits of pigs, for example (he is an ardent animal lover) , one cannot mistake the affection, the amusement, and the contrivance. Evence more palpable are his emotions in his famous portraits of John F. Kennedy, Rudolph Nureyev, Andy Warhol, and his father, in which his personal sentiments are inseparable from his interpretation. TSison's work than in the father's, particularly in the animal paintings, in which startling juxtapositions and closeups -- of a ram's head in profile against the horizon or a pig walking past a train -- have a surrealist quality. There is a hint of menace in some of his paintings, such as "Mushroom Picker," "Pumpkin Head," and his two most recent ones, "The Raven" (the incarnation of Poe's), and "A Very Small Dog," which has a snarling dog threatening like a spider from its lacy web of wicker.
Jamie Wyeth's world is more deceptive and elusive than his father's. It is no coincidence that in many of his portraits, part of the face is hidden, and that in his landscapes, nature is in a state of metamorphosis. Trees become spiders or a shell a beckoning hand. Things are not what they seem, Wyeth seems to be saying. Often they are more, and sometimes they are entirely different. It is this perception of ambiguity that gives Wyeth's "realist" paintings their depth and his sensibility its contemporaneity.
This exhibition is the grand finale of the 175th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy, the oldest art museum and school in the country. It numbers among its former students Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, John Sloan, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. One of the founding members of the academy was Charles Willson Peale, whose family was to art in the 19th century what the Wyeth family is today. N. C. Wyeth exhibited at the academy for 35 years, Heniette Wyeth studied there, and Andrew received his first full-scale exhibition in 1966 within this remarkable Victorian edifice (designed by Frank Furness).
The show is as rich in historical tradition as it is in visual delight. It continues through Dec. 4.