For over half a century, Andrew Wyeth's art has proven to be the most enduring of any American of his generation and has brought the artist acclaim at home and abroad. His widely varied subjects have been appreciated for their seeming simplicity and sheer beauty, for their celebration of rural American life, and for the haunting, plaintive silence that pervades his greatest materworks, such as Ericksons.
Painted in 1973, Ericksons dates from a pivotal period in Wyeth's prolific career, dating just five years after the artist's elegiac End of Olson's. For over twenty years, Christina Olson and her brother, Alvaro, had been one of the primary sources of inspiration for Wyeth in Cushing, Maine. "Christina's death in 1968 brought to a symbolic conclusion the long, seminal period of painting that reached back two decades to Christina's World and Karl and the artistic breakthrough triggered by the death of N.C. Wyeth. Now Andrew faced another time for reappraisal, for a new reason for painting." (R. Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, New York, 1996, p. 306)
Wyeth first encountered the Erickson family in the spring of 1967 with his wife, Betsy, while returning to their home in Cushing on a back road from nearby Thomaston. He was immediately galvanized by the distinctly resilient presence of this Finnish family, the robust gaze of George Erickson and the mature yet innocent countenance of his young daughter, Siri. This contradiction of wisdom and maturity in such a young girl would remain engrained in Wyeth's memory until he returned to Maine again the following summer. The artist recalls "I left for Pennsylvania about a week later. During the early winter I kept thinking about this little girl. Then I got word Christina had died...I remember going by the girl's house as I followed the hearse to the funeral. And as we passed, I remember looking at her house surrounded by some enormous pines and thinking, gosh, that little girl's in there. I was really hanging onto the thought because I could realize that that moment was the end of Olsons. And all the rest of the day I kept thinking that the young girl was there. It did fascinate me. It was almost as if it symbolized a rebirth of something fresh out of death. That sounds a little dramatic, but actually, it is true." (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1976, p. 172)
Siri became both a departure from, as well as a continuation of, Olson's. "The end of Olson's left an anxious emptiness in Wyeth. The possibility of filling it with this child at once untouched and exotic, was electrifying. Olson's has come to represent deterioration and dwindling. Here was effulgent, blossoming youth, a part of life he had never painted, a girl who could be the instrument that lifted him into another realm of painting." (Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, pp. 307-08) Siri would be the inspiration for two of Wyeth's most powerful and stunning nudes executed in tempera at this time, The Sauna, 1968 and The Virgin, 1969, works which Betsy Wyeth has described as being some of her husband's finest portraits in the tempera medium.
The Erickson family would remain a source of inspiration for Wyeth for approximately ten years and this body of work becomes fully realized in the present painting, capturing the complete essence of the Erickson clan. Ericksons is a "compendium of experiences in Finnish homes and Olson's and Teel's Island. Something mysterious, perhaps unwholesome, is beyond the door at the end of the hall. 'I've been very involved with the Erickson threesome,' Wyeth said at the time...I wasn't going to pick some idyllic scene in a Maine landscape. I'm not a person who looks from the outside in. I look from the inside out. To me the house has a sordid quality.'" (as quoted in Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, p. 309) Wyeth originally conceived the present work to include Siri, "but she got mixed up with a French boyfriend and was too tired to pose. I was going to have her stand next to her father--topless, which is the way she always was around the house. I was fascinated by the woodstove behind him and that white cup for his coffee. He's sitting in a strange kind of chair--Victorian--looking out the window where the light is coming in, with the sun shining down that long hall. It's an absolute portrait of Erickson in his house. Portrait of a stove with the shining silver-plated mechanisms. He kept it very polished. He was a very interesting man. He came from Finland as a stonecutter and worked in the Maine quarries and then in the shipyards of Philadelphia. He fell off a roof and broke his back and became an invalid. He married very late in life and had this beautiful daughter. All of that I wanted to get into this portrait. I believe I did, too."(Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography, New York, 1995, p. 96)
The use of George Erickson as a solitary figure tranforms the present painting into a more dynamic scene in its final realization and inspires a more poignant narrative with the absence of his maturing daughter. Siri's spirit is still suggested, however, in the other elements rendered in the scene; in the light coming through the window, in the still-life objects, and through her aging father's gaze toward the world beyond the walls of the home. The convention of using a solitary figure placed within an interior is "a pictorial convention of old New England-to express nineteenth-century values of self-reliance and independence." (A. Knutson, "Andrew Wyeth's Language of Things, Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 2005, p. 67) By painting George alone and in profile, Wyeth expands the physical picture plane and more significantly explores the potential for a broader narrative away from what is actually depicted within the center of composition, making the entire scene deeply psychological. In much the same way as Siri succeeds Christina as Wyeth's muse, so too does the Erickson home succeed Olson's. In Wyeth's 1967 watercolor, Room After Room, for example, Wyeth paints a composition quite similar to Ericksons, in which Christina Olson sits in a chair in the middleground, her face mostly turned to only reveal a hint of her profile gazing presumably out the top floor window to the light and world beyond the constraints of the walls. Wyeth writes, "what got me was that narrow part of the house and the strange succession of rooms. What an impact!" (Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography, p. 73)
Ericksons is a comprehensive scene and the truest sense of portraiture, representing not just a mere likeness of George Erickson and the interior of his home, but more significantly capturing more elusive themes: the essence of this family and the passage of time in rural Maine. Here, still-life objects continue to play an integral role in establishing this narrative thread in Wyeth's compositions. "Since his father's death in 1945, vessels have served as mementos of the dead in Wyeth's art, preserving memories and symbolically keeping them alive." (Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic , p. 66) The still-life elements seen in the present work lend to this dynamism as they are present in the scene to not only to add visual interest, but more importantly to underscore the personality of the sitter and the regional uniqueness and function of this family and home. "Eschewing things of more modern invention, Wyeth paints baskets, boats, houses, clothing and wagons. In an increasingly mobile, throwaway culture defined by mass-media images, Wyeth's authentic objects from an earlier era have proved to be appealing and reassuring. Many mid-century American artists--Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, Walker Evans, (fig. 1) Edward Hopper--depicted the same type of vessels, using the same formal techniques. Wyeth took plain, well-worn, domestic things and transformed them into portraits of their often poor and dispossessed owners. The message of many of those works is metaphoric: the things, like their owners, withstand the blows of time." (Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic, p. 66)
Wyeth often works in series, becoming deeply immersed in his subjects, so much so that he occupied a spare room at the Olson farm for a makeshift studio in order to accurately capture the daily activities of Christina and Alvaro and become a less intrusive narrator. Wyeth always remains loyal to the people in his immediate surroundings, rarely ever traveling beyond the environs of mid-coast Maine and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. This devotion to location and subject allows Wyeth to completely immerse himself in his art, lending sincerity to his painting style without being sentimental. Yet even with this investment, Wyeth remains the impartial spectator to create narratives that are deeply charged with his own emotion yet maintain an ability to allow for the viewer's own interpretation. In particular in Ericksons, Wyeth has chosen a subtle elevated perspective to render the scene. This raised point of view, coupled with George's position in profile, further detaches Wyeth from the scene, allowing the viewer to directly engage the composition as a whole and completely un-biased by the artist.
Ericksons expertly demonstrates Wyeth's un-rivaled mastery in tempera. On this media Wyeth has said: "It's a dry pigment mixed with distilled water and yoke of egg. I love the quality of the colors: the earths, the terra verde, the ochers, the Indian reds, and the blue-reds. They aren't artificial. I like to pick the colors up and hold them in my fingers. Tempera is something with which I build-like building in great layers the way the earth was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness." (as quoted in T. Hoving, Andrew Wyeth, New York, 1995, p. 11) Throughout his career, Wyeth has relied heavily on the significance of materials and technique, aiming to minimize the trace of the artist's hand. "My aim is to escape from the medium with which I work. To leave no residue of technical mannerisms to stand between my expression and the observer. To seek freedom through significant form and design rather than through the diversions of so-called free and accidental brush handling." (A. Weinberg, Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth, New York, 1998, p. 30)
The scene Wyeth has presented is intimate, not grand, and this intimacy lends itself to an honesty and immediacy in his depiction. The solitude and overall quietness of the image underscore the simplicity of life inherent in so many of the people and subjects that capture Wyeth's imagination. Additionally, Wyeth uses light to illuminate and play with movement in the composition, leading the viewer through the entire composition. The patterning of reflections and the depth of the perspective lead the viewer past the stove at right, over the threshold and down the hallway to a slightly ajar door, opening into the unknown. Wyeth has further depicted each area in the composition with its own tangible quality of texture and smell: the stained, worn wall paper that appears damp and creased with moisture, the cold metallic edges to the smoky stove, the hollow lightbulb and chain dangling from the ceiling, the dried muddied dirt on the tile floor and splintered planes of wood in the hallway. The assorted textures and brushwork used to depict George Erickson are deftly realized with varied dabs and layers of tempera to capture the worn fabric of his sweater, the abrasive stubble on his face, and the telling signs of a life of labor with raised veins in his forearms and temple and coarse hands.
As is often the case in Wyeth's temperas, Erickson's employs a limited and muted palette of rust red, ochres and browns, white, and subtle yellow and blue, serving to emphasize the essential simplicity of the scene. The geometric patterning of space, light and shadow, as well as the overall strict linear structure of the composition, is likewise straightforward and pared down to its essential elements. The vertical and horizontal edges of the panel serve to reinforce the interior structure composed by Wyeth, framing the edges to underscore the spatial and temporal boundaries of the narrative. Inspired by interior scenes executed by the Flemish masters centuries before, Wyeth developed his own highly realistic style in his temperas. The precision with which he paints gives way to abstraction at times, as panes of light and areas of color and shadow evolve into geometric patterns of line and form. As a result, a scene such as Ericksons is on the surface a quiet, domestic interior distantly reminiscent of Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch (fig. 2), when in fact it becomes a more emotionally charged image developed out of a scene of everyday life. "In some studies for windows, particularly in the Olson series, I observe shadows with absolute intensity, then when I come to finish the picture, I make what to me will be a pleasing abstract, which also picks up the abstract of the image. I'm trying to tell the story or the mood in the simplest terms. I have looked at a lot of early Flemish painting of the period of Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. If you're not a real student of it you can look at a lot of them and say, well, they're all great. But the difference between the real master and the others in the handling of the shadows is such a great difference." (Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, p. 181) Wyeth further comments, "'A lot of people say I've brought realism back--they try to tie me up with Eakins and Winslow Homer. To my mind, they are mistaken. I honestly consider myself an abstractionist.' By this last he means us to see his concerns with essential design and form and with meaning and feeling beyond surface reality."
In terms of American predecessors, Wyeth most often aligns himself with Edward Hopper for the artist's mastery of light, color and form, and his ability to maintain a distant narrative to create works of haunting solitude. Wyeth and Hopper are similarly able to become deeply involved in their compositions and yet at the same time detach themselves from their subjects and scenes, to create works of art that have an intimate narrative composed with a stage-like grandness. [fig. 3] "There was a kind of comfort for Betsy in her view that Wyeth's relationship with all models is ultimately detached and temporary. As she once explained, 'When Andy is going to begin a tempera, he sees a total play, a total situation. It's as though he's creating the role of Hamlet from first to last on the panel. Siri can't act it out. She doesn't know the part she plays. He is using her face to tell what's on his mind at that time in that situation. He assumes the role of Siri himself...he's becoming what he paints, the intangibles. He is the person" (Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, p. 311) "Great art," Hopper wrote, "is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination." (as quoted in L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 164)
Seen in the aged face of George Erickson, the stained wall paper and weathered floor boards of the hallway, Ericksons bears witness to the passage of time and makes the present work on the artist's most complete and profound representations of this theme. Each purposeful dash of pigment builds a complex scene that reveals Wyeth's reverence for the past and the present as expressed in the vernacular architecture and domestic implements of rural Maine. "Art, to me, is seeing. I think you have got to use your eyes as well as your emotion, and one without the other just doesn't work. That's my art." (Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, p. 185)
This painting will be included in Betsy James Wyeth's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.