Exploring the Reasons Behind Andrew Wyeth’s African American Subjects
A true watercolor master, Andrew Wyeth has influenced the works of artists for decades. And, his art still greatly impacts aspiring artists and art lovers alike to this day.
This year marks Wyeth’s 100th birthday. To honor the watercolorist and his legacy, the Brandywine River Museum of Art is running an exhibition through Sept. 17, titled “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect.”
This will be the first retrospective since Wyeth’s death in 2009 at the age of 91, according to an article published on philly.com. Though the exhibit will feature the famed artist’s most popular works, it will also showcase several pieces that may surprise viewers.
“’In Retrospect’ delivers the Wyeth of fields and melting snow and the brown grass of the Kuerner Farm,” writes Stephan Salisbury, staff writer for philly.com. “But here, also, is Wyeth as [a] chronicler of the now-vanished Little Africa community in his home territory of Chadds Ford, [Pennsylvania]—a black island in a sea of brown fields and white faces.”
Little Africa’s Big Impact on Wyeth
Although Little Africa and neighboring regions have been gone for years, many of its residents will forever be captured in Wyeth’s works. According to local historians, the area around Chadds Ford and Kennett Square was home to a large African American population before the Civil War. These numbers increased both during and after the Reconstruction.
Known for his entrancing landscapes and thought-provoking scenes, one might not associate Wyeth with race relations. However, as evident in Brandywine River Museum’s exhibition, the artist had a close “connection” with his neighbors.
When perusing through “In Retrospect,” reports Salisbury, you will find a portrait of “fur-hatted Adam Johnson, who lived a few houses away from the painter; of the brooding James Loper, given to long, moonlight walks in the countryside; of elderly Thomas Elwood Clark, tall, thin, and coming to his end; of alcoholic Willard Snowden, whom Wyeth housed and kept in booze to ensure he would be available for sittings.”
Given the racially mixed, rural community Wyeth grew up in, the artist had black friends he would play with as a child. And since his playmates and neighbors had such an impact on the watercolorist’s life, this may be why they hold such a prominent place in his art.
“Once Wyeth latched onto a subject, he was loath to let it go,” explains Salisbury in the article. “His father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, drilled into the boy what he considered a cardinal rule of art-making: ‘You must be like a sponge. Sponge it up. Soak it up.’”
Wyeth never forgot his father’s rule. Most of his art was influenced by his memory and his close surroundings, often restricted to just a few miles of Chester County and also around his summer home in Maine.
“He did leave occasionally,” says Audrey Lewis, co-curator of the Brandywine, as reported by Salisbury in the article. “As a rule, he found everything he needed in his own environment. … He could find more and more, every nuance could be explored. He took these walks since he was a boy. That’s how he found the Kuerner farm. He’d walk and think, looking down.”
The Racial Disguise
Many of the subjects in Wyeth’s paintings are of his neighbors, but some are not who they appear to be at all. “Wyeth sought to disguise the race of his sitter in at least two nudes by changing her race,” writes Salisbury.
He continues, “Barracoon (1976) and Heat Lightning (1977) both began as depictions of Wyeth’s white neighbor Helga Testorf, subject of a series of sometimes quasi-erotic paintings that Wyeth supposedly kept hidden from his wife, Betsy.”
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in her catalog essay, “Andrew Wyeth’s Black Paintings,” that Wyeth’s portrayals of Helga as a black woman reflects the power and control he believed he had because of his birthright.
“If black bodies could no longer be controlled in the same way as they once had been, their blackness could still be placed like a costume atop the form of Helga Testorf or wherever the artist wanted and needed it to be,” states Shaw.
Shaw also noted in an email, as reported in the article, that she believed Wyeth saw “the visual markers of racial difference as being at his command” due to the frequency of which the artist engaged in racial relations within his paintings and during Halloween.
These paintings are part of 105 works of art by Wyeth showcased in the “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” exhibit. The Brandywine River Museum of Art, located in Chadds Ford, is open daily 9:30 a.m. through 5 p.m.
If you’re in the area, be sure to check out the exhibit. Tell us what you think in the comments below.