Painted in 1947, Snowy Morning embodies the most exceptional hallmarks of Andrew Wyeth's accomplishments in the tempera medium. His characteristic magical realist approach to structures, people and inanimate objects distinguishes him amongst his contemporaries and garnered him a unique role in the context of twentieth-century American art. At a time when most American artists were concentrating on abstraction, Wyeth was focused on portraying his surroundings with heightened realism, using objects as portraiture, to allude to an elusive narrative often embedded in the highly finished and universal imagery of his paintings and watercolors. In Snowy Morning through exacting technique, brilliant use of light and mastery of the tempera medium, Wyeth transforms a lighthouse into a majestic, powerful representation of the complexity of the human experience along the rugged coast of Maine.
Andrew Wyeth spent his summers in Cushing, Maine. The Marshall Point lighthouse, which is located in the nearby seaside town of Port Clyde, is a defining feature of the surrounding coast and a welcoming beacon into the harbor. Built in 1832, it has been through several structural renovations over the course of its existence and seen many lightkeepers, most notably, Charles Clement Skinner who served as keeper from 1874-1919, the longest tenure of any on record. Skinner's daughter Eula Kelly lived at the house and continued to operate it until the 1980s. This continuity, coupled with the prominence of the local landmark, probably appealed to Wyeth's sensibilities and the lighthouse can be seen in several compositions.
In Snowy Morning, Wyeth depicts the lighthouse, and its respective Keeper's House, to hint at an ambiguously whimsical yet poignant narrative of coastal Maine. "Wyeth has retained an ability to perceive emotion and intelligence in inanimate objects, and even to imaginatively inhabit them; conversely he can discern inanimate (or still life) qualities in people. In the safe fictional realm of his art, he explores complex and difficult feelings, develops inchoate ideas, formulates and solves questions related to temporality, embodiment, and the metaphysical, and defies the laws of nature by animating insensate things. In this way, he identifies with objects and creates a distinctively private iconography." (A.C. Knutson, "Andrew Wyeth's Language of Things," Memory and Magic, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2005, p. 45)
In the present work Wyeth employs the eaves of the Keeper's House to establish the foreground which is united with the covered walkway adjoining the iconic Marshall Point lighthouse. The aerial perch from which the scene is presented provides a dramatic lead-up to the stoic lighthouse. With subtle brushstrokes and through carefully modulated greys and soft touches of whites, Wyeth creates a mystical atmosphere that conveys the characteristic thick fog of the Maine coast reflecting the semaphore of the lighthouse.
Wyeth crops the front of the Keeper's House from the composition and invites the viewer into the scene through the backlit window pane in the lower right corner. The warm light emanating through sheer curtains from the interior of the house through a Christmas wreath towards the viewer adds mystery to the location and is the only suggestion of human presence specifically elude to what lies immediately beyond the scene. Further heightening the essence of mystery is the warm light which emerges from the side of the house, casting shadows of window panes onto the snow. The intense white highlight of the lighthouse is juxtaposed with the depth of blue in the dark ocean creating a quiet and haunting drama which pervades the scene. "Although celebrated as a great American realist, Andrew Wyeth generally offered mystery rather than certainty in his art. The power of the unseen at work in nature and in human life gives his art its power and unique presence." (S.C. Larsen, Wondrous Strange, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1998, p. 18) This sense of mystery was often enhanced through Wyeth's technique. He had begun to experiment with the tempera medium in the late 1930s and by 1947, when he painted Snowy Morning, he was at the height of his technical prowess. The labor intensive technique of Wyeth's work in tempera is critical to the success of Snowy Morning. The subtle coloration and precision of detail create an almost frozen surface, imbuing the work with a sense of stillness and timelessness emblematic of his finest work.
This painting will be included in Betsy James Wyeth's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.