When Andrew Wyeth was born on July 12, 1917, exactly 100 years to the day after the birth of Henry David Thoreau, his father was delighted.
Henry David Thoreau was a favorite of the Wyeth family, which produced some of the best-known artists and artworks of the 20th century. N.C. Wyeth, the Needham, Mass.-born patriarch, characterized himself as “unconventional, democratic, free and careless of formalities, contemptuous of restraint, and with a wayward enthusiasm.” Much like Thoreau.
N.C. Wyeth considered schools a menace, and hired tutors to educate his sons and daughters at home. He taught Andrew to love the writings of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau.
Andrew Wyeth painted scenes close to home and close to nature. He endowed his landscapes and subjects with a haunting mysticism. In a 1961 interview, he said,
If what I’m trying to do has an value at all, it’s because I’ve managed to express the quality of the country which I live in … So what is important about my pictures, I feel, is a sort of organic thing of country … being able to express it symbolically.
Wyeth and Thoreau
Andrew Wyeth split his life between Chadd’s Ford, Pa., and Cushing, Maine, just as Thoreau only rarely strayed from Concord, Mass. He never got drawn into city life. He painted very much according to Thoreau’s Transcendental belief that people understand the world around them through intuition and imagination.
N.C. Wyeth once wrote about an open window in a way that echoed Thoreau’s observations about nature. It also foretold one of his son’s most famous paintings:
To all outward appearances, an extremely modest and commonplace vista, confined as it is by the four sides of the window frame and cut into eight exact panels by the window sashes, it is a scene that might be almost anywhere on earth. It is stripped of any glamour whatsoever, not a detail is outstanding or sensational; in fact, it is a glomeraton steeped in utter commonplaceness and seems doomed to eternal oblivion … but a resurgent gust of wind sweeps across the tiny area! The lilac leaves shudder and fold themselves back into broken heart shapes of new-wet luster, then frantically restoring themselves into position to be swept again and again into bright-varnished and twisted shapes. The tawny patch of long grass bends and leans into agitated motion, and the gray thin limbs of the spruce trees sway up and down in a ghostly slow dance. The deep gloom of the forest beyond remains still, like darkness.
Just His Imagination
My imagination is suddenly whipped into an almost exalted appreciation of the magnificence of the little isolated and unrelated scene before me, and I am astounded at its vast beauty and its sublime importance, and am made to realize, in one poignant spasm, that before my eyes exists the profoundest beauty, the greatest glamour and magnificence possible for human sight and spiritual pleasure.
Read what he wrote in his journal on his 40th birthday.
With thanks to The Art of Andrew Wyeth, by Wanda M. Corn. This story updated in 2022.