Painted in 1967 looking from the artist's front lawn in Cushing, Maine onto the Georges River, Off Shore embodies the most exceptional hallmarks of Andrew Wyeth's accomplishments in the tempera medium that have made him one of the most significant figures in American art. The present painting exhibits the subtle yet dense narratives that pay tribute to the passage of time and the people and places that inhabited the artist's daily life in Maine and Pennsylvania. The artist's neighbor, Raymond Woods, is depicted pulling the bow line taut to steady the boat, holding the viewer's attention with a penetrating stare. With a pile of hods resting in the scow, the three men set out on a clam digging expedition into the dense fog off the Maine coast, an excursion that belies the rugged lifestyle and strength of character that inspired Wyeth throughout his career. These universal subjects are revered for their seeming simplicity and sheer beauty, for their celebration of rural American life, and for their haunting, plaintive silence that pervades his greatest masterworks, such as Off Shore.
Wyeth began to experiment with tempera in the late 1930s and by the time he completed Off Shore his vision and controlled mastery of the medium have come fully realized. This rich medium is critical to the success of Off Shore, endowing the scene with the most subtle layers of color and allowing for great precision of detail while retaining the refined surface and sense of atmosphere that are so integral to Wyeth's paintings. The artist says of the medium, "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 itself was built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness..." (as quoted in Andrew Wyeth, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 11) Tempera allows Wyeth to suggest a sense of timelessness and imbue Off Shore with the stillness and mystery that is emblematic of his finest work.
Wyeth was a constant observer, often working in series inspired by subjects familiar to him. He built upon them in sketches which he swiftly and deftly created in quick passages of light that fall on a landscape or a passing glimpse from one of his sitters. As a result, his finished compositions often result in a marvelous dichotomy of abstraction grounded in precisely rendered realism of the places and people of Pennsylvania and Maine. Yet, even with this investment, Wyeth remains the impartial spectator, creating narratives that are deeply charged with his own emotion yet maintain an ability to allow for the viewer's own interpretation. The stare of Raymond Woods is direct and immediately engaging to the viewer whereas the hidden gazes of his companions create a sense of mystery. They stare off in opposite directions, an unknown object or sound capturing their attention. A break in the waves in the upper left corner of the composition holds the stare of the man in the stern and adds not only another element of motion and sound to the scene, but another level of intrigue to the narrative of the composition; perhaps the trailing wave indicates the wake of another friendly fisherman passing by or perhaps it tells of the more ominous presence of a hidden rocky shoal that was previously unseen in the shallow waters. Although physically large in scale, the scene Wyeth has presented in Off Shore is intimate, not grand, and this intimacy lends itself to an honesty and immediacy in his depiction. There is a sense of solitude that defines the three figures and envelops the entire composition, underscoring the independent and complex spirit of the characters who inhabit Wyeth's world.
This painting will be included in Betsy Jane Wyeth's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.