Whether seen in a weather-beaten fence post, in an empty cornfield after harvest, or in the wrinkled face of an old man, Andrew Wyeth's paintings bear witness to the passage of time. Washington and Lafayette is among Wyeth's most direct representations of this theme, as the painting reveals the artist's great sense of the passage of time and history on American soil. Wanda Corn has noted the importance of the temporal qualities in Wyeth's work, writing, "Time stops as his paintings make permanent what we know to be transitory. Paths and tracks in the snow or sand, or birds in flight become as fixed and static as ancient hieroglyphs; a sunbeam's playfulness on a wall, a patch of snow in the sun, or a fleeting flush of anger on his wife's cheek are made timeless and unchanging." (The Art of Andrew Wyeth, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, California, 1973, p. 155)
Washington and Lafayette reveals Wyeth's fascination with the unique circumstances of American history. The painting depicts two great generals during America's struggle for independence from Great Britain -- one American, the other French -- as they gaze across the Pennsylvania farmland and confer about tactics, plans, and topography. Washington and Lafayette represents the change from the Old World to the New as well as the transformation from monarchy to democracy. The painting also brings to mind the sense of history that can be felt in the coutryside around the Brandywine River and Chadds Ford.
Wyeth painted Washington and Lafayette in response to a particular historical event that took place during the American Revolution. On September 10, 1777, the morning before the Battle of Brandywine, General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette were standing on a hill overlooking the Brandywine River discussing battle plans. Three British officers spotted the two figures standing in the open. One of the British officers asked his captain permission to fire at them, but his request was denied, as the British feared the gunshots would reveal their cover and foil their strategy to ambush the American troops. Washington and Lafayette underscores the role of chance in the historical account, and it also reveals a sense of predestiny in the American's struggle for independence.
Wyeth executed Washington and Lafayette in 1954, a period when he had already achieved considerable success. By this time Wyeth had also perfected his painting technique in tempera, a medium that allows for great detail but also retains the refined sense of surface that is so important to Wyeth's paintings. Such detail can be seen in the graceful folds of Washington's uniform, in the probing face of Lafayette, or in the stone barn seen across the valley. Wyeth himself has described the qualities of the medium, "Tempera is, in a sense, like building, really building in great layers the way the earth itself was built . . . I think the real reason tempera fascinated me was that I loved the quality of the colors, the terra verde, the ochers, the reds . . . I really like tempera because it has a cocoon-like feeling of gray lostness -- almost a lonely feeling." (Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1976, p. 34) Washington and Lafayette reflects these sentiments, as the medium of tempera is perfectly adapted to expressing his sense of timelessness and history.
This painting will be included in Betsy James Wyeth's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.