This work will be included in Betsy James Wyeth’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work.
Painting in a post-World War II era when abstract art reigned, Andrew Wyeth remained true to a realist approach when capturing his experience of American life, yet also embraced Modernist tenets to imfuse his works with layers of meaning and visual intrigue. Characteristic of this distinct, delicate balance between complex intensity and private intimacy, Oliver’s Cap is an enigmatic painting that Wyeth himself believed was “one of [his] very richest and most personal pictures.” (unpublished letter, September 17, 1981)
Wyeth’s art often specifically drew on his immediate surroundings, including his hometowns of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine. Oliver’s Cap is one such private meditation on a sight of the artist’s daily life. As a child, Wyeth befriended a young boy named David “Doo Doo” Lawrence, who introduced him to the African-American community on the other side of Chadds Ford. Anchored by a home and place of worship known as “Mother Archie's Church,” this neighborhood was located between the Wyeth family home and Kuerner’s farm, another locale of great significance to Wyeth’s work. Richard Meryman writes of this community, “living in one of the small enclaves set aside by the Quakers after the civil war...Staying close to their land, usually available and amenable, they were another of Andrew's hidden away realms—impoverished survivors with their own special dignity, but ignored and misunderstood in his white world...Andrew approached them with the fixed attention of a grown-up child, free of superiority and sociology. Growing up with Doo-Doo, accepted as 'Lil Andy,' he had been allowed access to this culture so foreign to his own." (Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, New York, 1996, p. 186)
Oliver’s Cap depicts the home of one of the local families, the Winfields, who formed a close relationship with Wyeth and posed for him. Susie, her son Othaniel, daughter Genevieve and her husband Andy Davis shared a small house that had been provided to her by her local employers. The Winfield house was host to a tradition of Sunday dinners that followed services at Mother Archie's, and Wyeth and his wife Betsy were frequent guests for the traditional meals of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, biscuits and gravy. According to Betsy, the umbrella depicted in Oliver’s Cap was Andy Davis’s “pride and joy after Othaniel repaired the handle so it could open. On Sundays he would sit there by the hour watching the traffic close to the house whiz by.” (Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends, exhibition catalogue, Jackson, Mississippi, 2001, p. 130) The title of the present work, however, is connected to another old friend, Oliver Hazard, who worked in a nearby warehouse and wore a flat, pancake-like cap to the community gatherings; Wyeth humorously saw a connection between his distinctive hat and the striped umbrella on the Winfield lawn.
Despite Wyeth’s intimate relationship with the people of this vibrant community he so cherished, in Oliver’s Cap, the artist chooses to leave the setting desolate and abandoned, creating a void to be filled with remembrances for those with a similar personal connection or questions and inferences by an impartial spectator. Wyeth explained his deep, emotional connection to Oliver’s Cap, writing in a letter, “I want you to know the egg tempera painting you have, titled 'Oliver’s Cap' I consider one of my very richest and most personal pictures – This is a portrait of the Winfield house on Route One near Chadds Ford – As a small child I would drive by with my father on a Sunday Afternoon and see the Winfield family gathered on the side lawn – Many years passed and last Spring I drove past this same spot and there was only a beach umbrella and empty chair. I feel the painting tells the whole story.” (unpublished letter, September 17, 1981) This explanation, especially in its concluding sentence, speaks volumes to the importance of this community to Wyeth, but also how the painting reflects his acknowledgment of the passing of time and how time can morph such relationships and create a sense of loss and isolation.
This deep emotion inherent to Oliver's Cap largely derives from Wyeth's modern focus on compositional design. Rejecting the pure abstraction of his contemporaries, Wyeth famously questioned, “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. I believe, however, that I don’t want to let the one take over the other. I try for equal balance…I want the object to be there in my paintings, perhaps in all of its smallest detail, not as a tour de force, but naturally...” (as quoted in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, New York, 1976, p. 18) Oliver’s Cap is a perfect embodiment of this statement, realistically portraying a specific location, but with a deliberate arrangement of forms and colors in order to convey a distinct tone to the viewer. As Matthew Ballou writes, “It seems counterintuitive to think of Andrew Wyeth as having an affinity with Abstract Expressionism, but the fact is that his work declares how well-versed he was in a modernist design aesthetic; perhaps more than many of the AbExers actually were. And so many times his brushwork, the way he constructed compositional relationships, and how he used interpolation of colors is precisely related to the best of the high abstractionists. A great deal of that relation is shown in how the facture of illusion is so deftly connected to the designed arrangement of shapes and intervals on the picture plane itself. There a pinching and pressing, ease and expansion that happens to the eye as it travels around the best of his works.” (“A Few Days with Wyeth,” Nine Texts: Collected Writings for Neoteric Art, 2009-2011, Chicago, Illinois, 2011, p. 20)
Indeed, an analysis of the diagonal boundaries between positive and negative forms within Oliver’s Cap reveals parallels to the work of abstract artists like Richard Diebenkorn, who was known to have appreciated the art of Andrew’s father N.C. Wyeth. In fact, much of the compositional success of Oliver’s Cap lies in Wyeth’s perfect balance of the color-blocked areas representing the shadows on the lawn, the textured architectural planes, the bare sky, the foliage in the background and the nearby road. Upon closer inspection, however, these color forms of whites, tans and greens explode with frenetic, abstracted patterns of detail as the artist delights in the nuances of his tempera material and the subtleties of brushwork. Ironically, the very traditional, time-consuming medium of tempera allowed Wyeth to create some of the most modern, expressive and abstracted elements within compositions like Oliver’s Cap. Wyeth reflected, “I think the real reason tempera fascinated me was that I loved the quality of the colors; the earth colors, the terra verde, the ochers, the reds, the Indian reds, and the blue-reds are superb. 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 earth was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness.” (Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography, Boston, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 11)
This unique juxtaposition of realist and abstract technique in Oliver’s Cap is paralleled by the nuances of the work’s subject matter. With its simple, poetic arrangement of house and lawn with an abandoned chair, the scene is permeated by a profound stillness emblematic of Wyeth’s celebrated timelessness. However, simultaneously, the work can be specifically dated through the distinct striped umbrella and the modern telephone wires and road. Moreover, a sense of movement is unexpectedly palpable in the rippling fringe along the umbrella’s edge. These dichotomies create an unsettling tension in the viewer, as Robert Rosenblum writes, “it is fascinating to see how Wyeth occasionally suggests these intrusions of modernity but also keeps them at bay, as in Oliver’s Cap, where the austere old board-and-batten white house seems a fortress against the lean horizontal network of automobile road and telephone wires that connect with the outside road of twentieth century at one, only feels, the most infrequent intervals. (How long will it be before the next car passes or the telephone rings again?)” (On Modern American Art, New York, 1999, p. 128) These haunting questions within Wyeth’s best work align his oeuvre with that of the senior, but nonetheless contemporary, American master Edward Hopper. Anne Classen Knutson writes, “Hopper is one of the few artist's whose influence Wyeth acknowledges. Both gravitated to old houses and empty interiors, and both created frozen, haunted settings with a sense of suspended drama and nostalgia.” (Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic, Atlanta, Georgia, 2005, p. 76)
Wyeth once explained, “I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes. I see no reason for painting but that. If I have anything to offer, it is my emotional contact with the place where I live and the people I do.” (as quoted in Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, exhibition catalogue, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 2017, p. 162) Oliver’s Cap captures this deep, personal connection which Wyeth imbues within his best work, while also employing modern techniques of design and application to create stirring visual imagery that captivates even without background knowledge. The painting is at once both easy to understand, and also ceaselessly fascinating and attention holding, as Wyeth provokes the viewer to contemplate the mysteries to be found within his vision of modern American life.