Although the “burial group” drawings suggest that Wyeth was exploring the idea of a larger body of work, he never completed one of his atmospheric tempera paintings based on the sketches. Instead, the drawings were left at his friends’ house in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until 2018 that they were rediscovered and linked to similar designs from the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
Now at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine through October 16, selections from the series are being shared with the public for the first time in Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death. The exhibit includes contextual art by Wyeth as well as pieces by other artists who have pondered their mortality. A catalog of the same name, co-published with Delmonico Bookstakes a closer look at the designs through recent research.
As Colby College recently acquired two islands off the coast of Maine where Andrew and Betsy Wyeth lived and worked, the exhibit reinforces their commitment to his creative practice.
“The rediscovery of the ‘funerary group’ helps us to understand how Wyeth’s thought on death and its representation evolved during his long career, particularly through the genre of the self-portrait”, explains Tanya Sheehan, curator of the exhibition and art teacher at Colby College. “The series also shows us how the artist imagined his legacy and his relationship with his community as he approached the end of his life.”
Wyeth’s Christina’s world (1948) is one of the most recognizable works of 20th-century American art, yet the artist remains a polarizing and enigmatic figure who embraced a pastoral realism amid the rise of abstraction. In the rural settings that permeate his work, death is often a haunting presence. Until his own death in 2009, health issues punctuated Wyeth’s life, including surgery in 1951 to treat a serious lung condition. A typically oblique self-portrait was made following the so-called operation Trampled grass, showing only Wyeth’s legs, clad in his father’s boots, walking across the parched winter grass. His self-portrait Dr Syn (1981), meanwhile, features a seated skeleton wearing a blue military coat while To break up (1994) depicts the artist’s own hands searching desperately through broken glass.