Wednesday, January 21, 2009

 

There was nothing ironic in my choice of an image for Saturday’s notice of the passing of Andrew Wyeth. “Trodden Weed,” the 1951 painting I featured, is one of Wyeth’s few self-portraits. In the painting, Wyeth is wearing boots that once belonged to Howard Pyle, the founder of the Brandywine school of painting & teacher of N.C. Wyeth, Andrew’s father & a famous illustrator in his own right. It was N.C.’s illustrations for Treasure Island that enabled him to buy property in Chadds Ford, maybe 10 miles southwest of here. Technically, Chadds Ford is the western tip of Delaware County, but the tiny town where the Battle of the Brandywine – the worst defeat on home soil in the history of the American military – was fought on September 11, 1777 has much more in common with Chester County, which surrounds it on three sides.

Unquestionably, Andrew Wyeth was, is & will ever be the most famous visual artist to come from the western ‘burbs of Philadelphia.¹ That self-portrait shows him walking over Kuerner’s Hill in Chadds Ford, not far from the home where he died. Tempera on a panel, “Trodden Weed” – or “Night Sleeper” above – captures the very fine balancing act that Wyeth’s work always involved:  simply awesome technique, an uncritical sense of painting just ever so slightly on the impressionistic side of realism & an understanding that sentimentality would capsize this genuinely conservative aesthetic. The closest thing to Andrew Wyeth in the world of poetry is probably Wendell Berry, and I mean that as a compliment to both.

I never met Wyeth, never saw him at the Brandywine River Museum that is something of a Wyeth family headquarters for the general public, never ran into him at Hank’s, the diner he ate at once a week (but where I eat only once every couple of years), never saw him out in the yard at his place, tho it’s on one the main roads, one I’ve driven hundreds of times.

But you can’t live here and not feel his presence. He did more to give shape to this region’s sense of self-image than any other single individual, including I dare say George Washington.

 

¹ Tho she once owned the mansion that is now the Upper Mainline YMCA in Berwyn, Mary Cassatt never lived there.

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