Paris Over the Holidays, part 1: The Wyeths
13, January 2012 § 3 Comments
During the holiday season in Paris there is a multitude of art exhibitions on display to tempt tourists and locals alike. As I was fortunate enough to be in Paris during the New Year’s festivities, I was able to enjoy a number of the shows and museums, indulging in artwork of all kinds. I will be writing three reviews of exhibitions I visited while in Paris, “The Wyeths: Three Generations of American Artists” at the Mona Bismark Foundation, “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde” at the Musée d’Orsay and “Fra Angelico and the Masters of Light” at the Musée Jacquemart-André.
If one is determined, in a week they can cover a lot of ground in a city like Paris, where strolling is pleasant and the metro is easily accessible. The first exhibition I saw was “The Wyeths: Three Generations of American Artists” at the small and charming Mona Bismark Foundation, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. The show features the works of painter and illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, his son Andrew, perhaps the most important figurative American painter of the 20th century, and his grandson Jamie. The draw is quite rightly Andrew, but from the collected works we get an idea of the evolution of one of the truly great American artists and his family legacy.
The exhibition starts with bright, dramatic paintings by N.C. that were used to vividly illustrate stories such as Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and King Arthur. N.C.’s paintings are bold and direct, depicting the tales of swashbuckling pirates, soldiers and knights. There is no ambiguity in NC’s pieces and his brushwork and color are always sure and confident. Perhaps the lack of subtlety in N.C.’s works may be cause for criticism, but it is clear that he was a painter of suberb technical skill and range. NC’s work is a helpful introduction to the formation of his son, Andrew. We could even find Andrew drawing in on of NC’s paintings, “Eight Bells” hunched over his drawing in N.C.’s lobster boat off the coast of Maine.
In contrast with N.C.’s colorful, almost theatrical paintings, Andrew’s works, mostly in egg tempera or watercolor, are by contrast subdued, still and personal. There are no classics in this exhibtion, no “Christina’s World,” but instead intimate depictions of Andrew’s immediate surroundings: his neighbors, his studio window, his barn, his boots, etc.
Around the time of his father’s death from a car crash in 1945, Andrew’s color palette changes, and gone are the vivid blues and reds of his earlier watercolors, replaced with muted browns and grays. Andrew’s ability to capture his subjects in fine detail is breathtaking. Yet, in their balance, design and tone, it is the compostional arrangements in Andrew’s paintings which sustain the viewer, elevating his pieces from being simply well observed landscapes and portraits, to poetic and intensely personal works. When we see his paintings we get a sense of seeing not just through the eye of Andrew Wyeth, but through his temperament and sensibilities. In so doing we get a sense of the man himself.
After Andrew, the show continues with the paintings of his son, Jamie. If the Wyeth show were a three course meal, then N.C.’s contribution would be a spicy beef tataki appetizer, Andrew’s would be an aromatic and delicately prepared salmon fillet with herbs and Jamie’s would be a cheeseburger, some fishsticks, and a cheesecake for dessert. That is to say that there is a whole lot of Jamie’s work in the exhibition, and the range is wide, most of which are a far cry from the paintings of his father and grandfather. Jamie is a competent painter and he has works of true merit but they would do better in a personal retrospective only. In “The Wyeths” exhibition, it is a bit like having cheesecake after one has reached a sufficiency.
“The Wyeths: Three Generations of American Artists” is a show that doesn’t have enough work from its star draw, but his pieces alone are worth the trip. N.C.’s works are enjoyable and Jamie’s portraits are worthy of note, but ultimately, “The Wyeths” highlights Andrew Wyeth as the supreme painter of his renowned family. The exhibition is a fine example of the power of the subdued. N.C.’s paintings are dynamic. Jamie has many of all kinds. Yet, Andrew with only a select few watercolors, egg temperas and drawings makes the biggest impact.