This work will be included in Betsy James Wyeth’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work.
“Although celebrated as a great American realist,” Susan C. Larsen writes, “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." (Wondrous Strange, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1998, p. 18) Wyeth’s stunning tempera Crescent characteristically balances on this captivating interface of everyday familiarity and ethereal ambiguity. Depicting a view on the threshold of the Wyeth family’s mill in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the painting lingers between happy holiday memories and snow-covered desolation, a warm home seemingly frozen in time within the winter landscape. As epitomized by Crescent, Wyeth once reflected, "There are always new emotions in going back to something that I know very well. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn't show." (as quoted in J. Wilmerding, Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1987, p. 182)
In 1971, Wyeth described his family’s Christmas traditions to Life magazine, explaining, “My father made Christmas joyous—the house was just loaded with Christmas—but it was a serious matter. Everything was made a great deal of. For instance, the tree would still be there way after New Year’s. The needles will fall. And my father would say, ‘Now we’ve got to light the tree one more time.’” (Andrew Wyeth, “Christmas is to get really excited about something,” Life, December 17, 1971, p. 125) This description underscores the duality of the holiday season that Wyeth explores in Crescent. On one hand, the Christmas tree is dotted with glowing lights, a beacon of joy shining amidst the landscape. At the same time, the inherent seasonality of the tree, which will very soon lose its branches and bright ornaments, brings to mind the passing of time. The waxing moon, positioned almost as an ornament upon the tree, further calls to mind the seasons of life, yet also importantly signals a new beginning; the moonlight will only increase over the forthcoming days as the crescent grows into a full moon.
The interesting position of the Christmas tree atop a pole, likely derived from German tradition, likewise reflects a spirit of hope with its relation to the maypole, which Wyeth would later famously depict in Snow Hill (1989, The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection). James H. Duff explains, “Wyeth also earnestly admired German culture, and the Kuerners, Helga, or his own research could have informed him about the maypole tradition, which derived from paganism and was a remnant of Germanic reverence for sacred trees, as often depicted in art…Early maypoles were trees from which all but the top branches were cut, and in Europe, in recent centuries, a tree was sometimes placed on top of the pole…outside their house at Christmastide, beginning more than a year before Snow Hill was painted, the Wyeths placed a lit tree on top of a similarly proportioned pole, as pictured in Crescent. It is very likely that Wyeth enjoyed conceiving such a dance in winter as part of the family’s tradition, and as an inversion of conventional meaning—a celebration of the dead of winter and the dead season.” (Andrew Wyeth: Snow Hill, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 2017, pp. 39, 42)
Indeed, Wyeth’s celebration of the winter season is infused within Crescent, even if no revelers are visible in the scene. Wyeth commented, "I love the bleakness of winter and snow and get a thrill out of the chill. I'm taken by the bleakness—not the melancholy of the feeling of snow. My winter scenes differ from those of other artists in that they're not romantic. No! They capture that marvelous, lonely bleakness, the quiet shrill reality of winter." (as quoted in Andrew Wyeth Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Nagoya, Japan, 1995, p. 245) In Crescent, he wraps the Pennsylvania countryside in a smooth blanket of snow, interrupted only by innumerable spiny, dead branches. While sharp icicles hang ominously overhead, the intricate straw baskets, presumably hanging in storage until the next harvest season, ground the composition. The tremendous textural detail in the wooden overhang and beams connect the scene to home and hearth, even if suspended in this moment of spirituality and stillness.
The sharp juxtaposition of the dark earthiness of the mill building with the ephemeral, white bleakness of the winter landscape complicates the perspective within Wyeth’s realist composition. Indeed, describing Crescent, the artist said, “One of the things that got me was the wooden beams, so dark and damp and cold. If you turn this picture upside down, it looks like a Chinese dump going down the Yangtze River or something. It’s better upside down! In fact, one of my collectors has a painting he always hangs upside down. Told me, ‘Hope you don’t mind, but it looks better this way.’ It’s alright, I don’t care.” (as quoted in Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography, Boston, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 134) As such, Crescent thoughtfully explores the artist’s famous question: “Why not have the abstraction and the real, too? Combine the two, bring in the new with the traditional and you can’t beat it.” (as quoted in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, New York, 1976, p. 18)
A vision of Christmas tradition within his everyday life in Pennsylvania, Crescent is imbedded with symbols of both hope and passing, light and darkness, palpable materiality and uncanny ambiguity. As a result, like all of Wyeth’s best works, the image transcends specifics of time and place to create a lingering impression of stillness and mystery.