This painting will be included in Betsy James Wyeth’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work.
The Sexton represents the enduring, metaphoric motifs of isolation and mortality that captivated Andrew Wyeth throughout his career. This penetrating depiction of a gravedigger was painted in 1950, during a period of significant artistic output in the years following the death of his father, N.C. Wyeth, and soon after receiving resounding critical acclaim when, in 1948, The Museum of Modern Art acquired one of his paintings. The emotive power of the subject and the exquisite execution on display in The Sexton demonstrates Wyeth’s technical mastery of the tempera medium and positions the work among the artist’s most significant.
The artist wrote of the present work: “An old lady had died—this was in Maine—and I went over to the graveyard, the same one where my wife Betsy’s mother is buried. I heard this sound of a pickax hitting the dirt, and there was Waino Mattson, the Finn who worked in the quarries and also dug the graves. There he was at work, swigging on a bottle of beer. The shape of the grave in the rocky soil impressed me, and that amazing man down there digging away. He’s the sexton, of course. I changed the title. Didn’t like the first one—She Didn’t Winter Well.” (Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 30)
The passage of time and inevitability of death are prevailing themes explored throughout Wyeth’s oeuvre. Morbidity is overtly depicted in Wyeth’s many works featuring animal corpses, such as Winter Fields (1942, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Anne Classen Knutson further observed, “These momento mori themes are treated more extensively in Wyeth’s series of figures in the landscape. A key to these works lies in the sudden violence of his father’s death. In October 1945, N.C. Wyeth and his three-year-old grandson (the child of Andrew’s brother, Nathaniel) were hit and killed by a train at a crossing in Chadds Ford. N.C.’s shocking death changed Andrew Wyeth forever. At the age of twenty-eight, his youthful optimism and sense of immortality were abruptly derailed, and his work began to reflect an increasing mortality… His father’s death had brought him to life, Wyeth said, since it caused him to commit to serious themes. ‘It gave me reason to paint, and emotional reason. I think it made me.’” (A.C. Knutson, A. Wyeth in “Andrew Wyeth’s Language of Things,” Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic, p. 58)
During this pivotal period, a lone figure in an ochre field became a recurring theme for Wyeth. Winter, 1946 (1946, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina) is the first tempera painted after his father’s death, and the uncharacteristic inclusion of the date in the title signifies the importance of this time to the artist. Wyeth described the out-of-control nature of the boy running downhill in Winter, 1946 and how it represented his own overwhelming emotions after the abrupt nature of N.C.’s death. (as quoted in W.M. Corn, The Art of Andrew Wyeth, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 1975, p. 58) The boy’s isolation on the field could express the major personal loss of a father as well as the professional loss of his artistic teacher. Most notably, two years later in 1948, Wyeth completed Christina’s World (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The work depicts Betsy Wyeth’s physically disabled neighbor Christina Olson isolated on a hill. Paralyzed from the waist down, Christina is seen using her arms to drag herself toward her home, which looms in the distance. Immediately recognizing the significance of this picture and this period in the artist’s career, The Museum of Modern Art purchased Christina’s World.
Wyeth painted The Sexton just two years later during this pinnacle of acclaim. The subjects in Winter, 1946, Christina’s World, and The Sexton all exhibit autonomy and are viewed in isolation. The young boy in Winter, 1946 is unaccompanied as he casually runs down the hill, a liberating experience for someone his age. Meanwhile, in Christina’s World, Christina Olson demonstrates strong independence maneuvering herself across the field without assistance, defiantly rejecting the aid of a wheelchair. And, in The Sexton Waino Mattson determinedly toils alone in the dirt, working diligently to accomplish his task.
Wyeth’s enduring fascination with the past and present is grounded in the permanence of the familiar landscapes in the countryside surrounding his Pennsylvania and Maine homes, which served as the settings for nearly all of his work. The setting for The Sexton is the Cushing cemetary in Maine, near where the Mattsons and the Wyeths lived, though the anonymous landscape doesn’t indicate a specific place or time. The task of grave-digging is also an ageless job, as is Waino Mattson’s other laborious line of work in the quarries. In Wyeth’s paintings that feature figures within landscapes, including The Sexton, he regularly explores merging the individual with the environment. In The Sexton, very similar brushwork is used for the grass and the figure’s hair, visually and metaphorically unifying the man with the land in which he works. The dry grass field in the present work, painted intricately down to the individual blades, is textural and rhythmic and blankets the tightly cropped composition, further refining our focus to the figure and his undertaking.
This rich medium of tempera is critical to the success of The Sexton, 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: Autobiography, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 11) Tempera allows Wyeth to suggest a sense of timelessness and imbue The Sexton with the stillness and mystery that is emblematic of his finest work.