Wyeth's World

There I was. At the Olson House. I looked up at it from the field - the one so tenderly painted by Andrew Wyeth in "Christina's World." The Maine farmhouse looked just the same, austere and weather-beaten. Inside, it was spare. Christina's rocking chair was in its familiar spot, between the wood stove and kitchen window through which she watched the world go by. And on the windowsill sat potted geraniums, also a familiar image. I paused in a small room to listen to the Wyeth's longtime friend Dudley Rockwell tell stories of the early days in that house. While he was speaking, in walked Andrew Wyeth. Mr. Rockwell kept talking, and Andrew listened delightedly, with an impish twinkle in his eye. He seemed friendlier than I'd expected.

An intensely private man, Andrew has a reputation for not mingling much. But last weekend was different. Right there in Wyeth country, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland opened a new museum and study center devoted to the works of not only Andrew, but also his father, N.C., and his son Jamie.

Two new exhibition spaces - a spacious wing and an old converted meetinghouse, are handsome additions to the existing museum. The buildings and surrounding landscaping were sensitively designed to reflect the Wyeth's simple, understated taste.

The center's inaugural exhibition isn't the "greatest hits" collection one might expect, but a more imaginative show. Called "Wondrous Strange," it was conceived by Andrew's wife, Betsy James Wyeth, and includes 120 works that trace the influence of American illustrator Howard Pyle on the three Wyeths.

For years, the Wyeths have been wildly popular with everyone but art critics, who often snub them for their mainstream appeal and realistic style. But this exhibit clearly shows there's more to their art than realistic renderings. Beneath the surface, especially of Andrew's art, is an intensity of emotion that comes from a deeply personal place.

But where, I wonder, is that delightful sense of humor? The bleak colors, lonely figures, and barren landscapes suggest a melancholy man, not the animated Andrew I met in the Olson House last weekend.

* 'Wondrous Strange' remains in Rockland, Maine, through Nov.8. It then travels to the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington (Dec. 10 to Feb. 21). The Olson House, owned by the Farnsworth Art Museum, is open to the public all summer.

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