Welcome to Looking at Art. Here’s what we do: I just spend some time looking at the piece, writing down thoughts & questions I have. Thinking about how it makes me feel and trying to make connections. Then I will do some research and report back to you with any details that are relevant to the piece. Finally, I put all that together and contemplate how the piece’s meaning has changed for me & what my big takeaways are. Today’s selection is:
Winter 1946 (1946)
Tempera on board
79.7 cm × 121.9 cm
We’re around midwinter, so I thought this would be an excellent painting to discuss. I’m not terribly familiar with Andrew Wyeth beyond one other image, Christina’s World. I’ve always found that piece to be highly evocative, bringing up horror and cinematic suspense ideas. You have to look closely at it to see those elements coming out, but they are there. The same sort of danger you might encounter in a Coen Brothers film.
Winter appears to take place in a similar rural locale, leading me to believe Wyeth must have been from the Midwest or rural Northeast of the United States or had been heavily inspired by them. There’s less of a sense of danger in this piece for me, but it is incredibly enigmatic. While being called “winter,” it doesn’t look like what I know an Eastern winter can be: snow drifts reaching 6-7 feet high in the flat places. There is snow, though, patches of it on the left along the barbed wire fence. I also note the parallel tracks on the ground that move my eye from that point, curving over to the figure in the center.
The shadow tells me this is in the early morning, possibly. The light in the sky doesn’t lead me to believe it’s dusk but dawn. The figure is wearing winter clothes of the period. What is most striking about the figure is their body position. I believe it’s a male person, but you cannot be sure from the image alone. There’s a tilt to the left, and the eyeline follows. However, the person’s left arm extends out against the leaning. This makes me think of someone stumbling home drunk in the morning. Maybe a night of drinking at a bar or a friend’s house. Perhaps they are headed from home to work and trying to shake off the alcohol? The feet really make me think about the person being intoxicated as they bring up the test cops will make people do by walking in a straight line. Based on the position of the figure, I don’t imagine that happening.
I also want to point out the incredible detail in this piece. I kept zooming in on the grass and was amazed. Each blade has been painted to the point that, with the proper resolution, it could almost look like a grass photo. It’s that perfect yellow-brown shade seen during winter when the grass is dead or dying, waiting to be revived in the spring. The texture of the figure’s clothes contrasts with the grass. The pants have the look of corduroy. The jacket is made of thick material, and attention has been paid to the three big brass buttons on the front. I like how all the pockets are unbuttoned except the one on his chest’s left side. The clothes have been giving a sense of movement too, which adds to giving them tangibility. They flop the way these clothes really do.
When I follow the figure’s eyeline, they bring me back to the tracks. I wonder what left these tracks. My first guess is a vehicle; they look like tire tracks. We could be in a farmer’s field, and this was a truck driven over the hill. Maybe the figure drove drunk, his vehicle out of sight beyond the hill, and now he is stumbling back home to call a tow truck. Much like in Christina’s World, the landscape is so dominant in the painting. The figure feels isolated against this sea of dead grass. Everything in the picture is dead or dormant except for the figure. The horizon is almost nonexistent. Almost anything that might attract the eye is in the center (but leaning left) or the left side of the painting. The right side is a void of grass. So let’s learn something about Andrew Wyeth and what he said about this particular piece.
In a 1965 interview with Life Magazine (May 15), Andrew Wyeth spoke directly about this painting and others. He said the most prominent feeling his work would likely evoke is detachment. Wyeth elaborated that his work has elements that draw the viewer closer, but also explained he feels like his work also puts up a hand when the viewer gets too close; there’s a reserve in the paintings. The Protestant demeanor is one of polite distance; the landscape and the people’s survival there breed this sentiment in them.
Wyeth cited his father’s death in 1945 as one of the most significant experiences of his life. He said their friendship was very close, and he saw his father as the best teacher he ever had. The old man was killed when a train struck his car at a crossing. N.C. Wyeth has also been an artist in his own right. Like many creative people, N.C. struggled with depression and self-doubt from childhood onward. There is no consensus on whether or not N.C. killed himself or that his truck stalled on the tracks. He was 63 years old, and his four-year-old grandson was in the passenger seat, also killed. Rumors spread in the tight-knit that he had killed himself or that the grandson was a love child N.C. had with his daughter-in-law. It is the sort of nasty buzz you find in many small towns where Death is something people live in terrifying fear of. They can’t stomach the idea that life can be taken from us so quickly; thus, they construct a narrative that makes the dead “deserving” of what happened. “I’m a ‘good’ person,” they assure themselves. “Nothing like that could happen to me.”
N.C.’s death spurred Andrew to push himself further, to expand beyond watercolor, so he radically transformed his art style to this more intense, foreboding tone. His father had spent most of his professional life trying to overcome the label of “illustrator” and be seen as a “real” artist. N.C. was a big guy, 6’1″ and 300 lbs, publicly showing a lot of male bravado, which made him a regular pal of the overly masculine performing Teddy Roosevelt. Andrew Wyeth said his father’s death evoked a sense of gloom in him that flowed out onto the canvas producing the work that still defines the painter to this day. For Wyeth, the landscape & his father became one and the same, vast & all-encompassing. There was nowhere the painter could look where his father’s absence wasn’t felt.
Wyeth explains Winter 1946’s figure as a boy running. His hands are flung, and it’s the sort of run where you let gravity just pull you down the hill, using your arms to keep your balance. The black shadow lingers behind him, and he is against a landscape but disconnected from other people. Wyeth says that hand was groping in the darkness for something to steady his soul. On the other side of the hill is where N.C. was killed, and Wyeth was disturbed that he had never taken the time to have his father sit for him for a painting. The hill then becomes a portrait of N.C., looming over the boy, just under his feet but unable to guide him anymore. Wyeth says this painting gave him a reason to continue his work. There was an excitement to express all these things so vividly and in his own style.
I hadn’t expected to find Wyeth so explicitly talking about the meaning of his work, but it makes sense. He was a painter coming to prominence while mass media was taking off. It was a new thing to be able to hear directly from the painter rather than be left to think about what it meant. It is good not to always make the artist’s personal life the center of your interpretation of the art. For me, though, I enjoy having insight into the artist’s process, how the work is also a form of therapy, working out demons on the canvas.
Wyeth’s representation of his father as the hill is compelling and knowing he’s the stumbling figure helps make sense of the work. While I didn’t find him talking about the tracks on the ground, we can assume that they are from the truck going over the hill to where N.C. died. I find it fascinating that Wyeth was getting out his grief on the canvas while feeling exhilarated in his craft, something I imagine would have made his father immensely happy.
This small excerpt from a conversation with Wyeth has also helped me understand his work a bit more. The prominence of the landscapes in his other paintings will also have more significant meaning. The attention to detail on the grass signifies love toward his father. By painting each blade, he could spend that much more time with him, making the portrait he never got the chance to paint. Because the horizon is so high, the figure appears to be in the landscape, in the same way that Wyeth’s artistic ambitions were shaped by his father. Wyeth is a part of N.C. and vice versa. Losing someone vital to your sense of being would create a sense of disorientation which we can see in the figure’s imbalance. It’s a fantastic piece and has me ready to take a look at our next painting, which will be something you’ve probably never seen from a painter you likely have never heard from. See you then.