First published May 3, 2009.

Jamie Wyeth has an eye on the weather.

Rain batters the windows of his office at the Wyeth Research Center on the Farnsworth Art Museum campus, whipped by an early-spring storm.

The torrent concerns Wyeth, because he’s due at Tenants Harbor within the hour, and then must cross in his double-ended peapod to his island home a mile offshore.

There will be no one there to meet him, no captain to ferry him across the choppy seas to the safety of his island refuge. It will be Wyeth alone making this wet and windy passage, rowing against the elements and the onset of darkness.

There’s no glamour in island life, he says, dismissing the romantic notion with a wave of his hand – and a hearty laugh. Inconvenience is the necessary cost of isolation, he says.

”Living on an island gives you a sort of focus, ” he says. ”In the world we all live in today, there is so much we are bombarded with and so forth. I find to physically remove myself seems to work. Because I want to see every movie, I want to go to every concert. To work, you’ve got to stop that.”

Less than four months since the death his father, iconic painter Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, 62, stands alone as the last of three generations of an artistic dynasty. He is now the elder statesman of the first family of American art, with a legacy dating to the early 20th century and the work of his grandfather, illustrator N.C. Wyeth.

That, too, is a notion he chooses not to dwell on.

”Oh, God, ” he says, dreading the subject. ”Those sort of considerations really don’t enter much in my mind. I think it’s interesting for people. It makes a certain accessibility for people to sort of latch onto that – now I am the last one left standing, or something.

”But no. All those considerations stay outside my studio. It really doesn’t involve me. If it did, I would be frozen.”


These days, Wyeth is anything but frozen.

He is full of energy and inspiration, busy at work in his island studio and, when he must, on the mainland. When not in Maine, he spends time at his farm in Pennsylvania. But mostly, and in all seasons, he chooses to be on his island, and almost always alone.

In the time since his father’s death, Wyeth has thrown himself headfirst into his work.

On May 16, he opens an exhibition at the Farnsworth’s Wyeth Center called ”Jamie Wyeth – Seven Deadly Sins,” in which he uses the common gull as a metaphor to explore the sins of envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust, greed and pride.

It’s a subject that artists have toiled with for centuries, and something Wyeth himself has contemplated for at least four decades since fixating on a series of paintings by Paul Cadmus in the hallway of the Manhattan home of Wyeth mentor Lincoln Kirstein.

Cadmus’ paintings impressed Wyeth in a horrifying way, and he’s been thinking of them off and on ever since.

The gulls presented themselves as a metaphor for the work, because Wyeth lives with them on a daily basis. For many years, he has obsessed over the birds. He detests that so many painters depict gulls as beautiful white doves, ”when in fact they are vicious scavengers, and they’re edgy.”

”And to me, they represent the sea, the ocean. Rather than me doing big surf paintings and so forth, I think the eye of the seagull says more about the sea than a big, sudsy surf scene.”

His concerns about the weather aside, Wyeth seems completely at ease as he talks about his work, his life and the passing of his father. He comes across as robust and vigorous, and is dressed the part of an islander, only this is no costume: a wool overcoat, a weathered shirt with one red button and a pair of knickers, with rubber thigh boots to keep him dry. His hair is windblown, his face ruddy.

He is a willing conversationalist, with few subjects off limits. He speaks in bursts of words and imagery, leaving thoughts unfinished before moving on to others. He is animated and engaged.

Wyeth is heartened by the work of President Obama, encouraged that people are turning to museums during these difficult economic times, and utterly unconcerned about his place in art history, or that of his father.

He was deeply moved by the global outpouring of sympathy and tributes after his father’s death, and unmoved by a new wave of criticism leveled at his father and his work.

”Thank God we are not in theater or something, where they can shut us down, where literally nobody would go to your picture or nobody will go to the theater, ” he said. ”At least with painting, you can keep doing it. So in that sense, thank God we’re in an enviable position.”

”But I think, particularly with Andrew Wyeth, they do not know where to put him in, what peg to put him into. He is a very peculiar painter. I mean, very strange. On the one level, people look at it, ‘Oh my God, it’s so realistic, it looks like grass, it looks like this and that.’

”But if you look closely, his things are very disturbing and very strange. It’s a curious, air-less world that he created. It’s going to be a while for people to assess, really, because he was almost primitive in a way.”


One thing of which Wyeth is certain: He misses his father in ways that people on the outside can only imagine.

Beyond their obvious familial bond and all that a father-son relationship entails, the two Wyeths also shared a painterly legacy and lifestyle. The father knew the toils of the son, and vice versa. They knew what it was like to spend time alone, in a studio, on an island, in critical and social isolation.

Their relationship was strong enough that each could criticize the other’s work without fear of hurt feelings or repercussion.

The lack of that near-daily banter is something that the younger Wyeth is only now coming to terms with, especially with the opening of a new exhibition. Had he been alive this summer, the elder Wyeth almost certainly would have made a point of quietly visiting the Farnsworth to see his son’s show.

”He was very honest with me about my work, and I with him. Because we had nothing to gain by trying to impress one another, or trying to compliment one another. He was a very severe and yet fair critic of my work. So that I miss tremendously, ” Wyeth said.

Andrew Wyeth died in his sleep Jan. 16 at his home in Chadds Ford, Pa., at age 91. He had taken a fall in his studio and cracked a rib, and his health quickly deteriorated, his son said.

Until the fall in his studio, Andrew Wyeth was in good health, and painted until the end. Jamie Wyeth believes some of his father’s best work came late in life.

”In fact, his last painting I think is really one of his great paintings, ” he said. ”So it shows at 91, that he was still – that’s the enviable thing about painting, is that you can keep doing it, it’s not that you’re retired and so forth. And he was curious and as excited about what he was working on as he was, I am sure, when he was a child. Never varied, never changed.”

The final painting is one that Andrew Wyeth’s widow, Betsy, has retitled ”Goodbye.” It is a painting of a sail loft on the couple’s island off Port Clyde – a huge structure that has garnered much attention because it is so prominent. Andrew Wyeth painted it from across the water.

”It’s a very simple but very deep painting. Fascinating, ” Wyeth says, adding that he hopes he inherited his father’s long-lived genes. ”He was constantly working on projects, and this and that. He never stopped painting. With painting, you can do it all the time. And he certainly did it all the time. He was the most prolific painter I think I have ever heard of. Extraordinary.”

He admits that it will be odd not having his father around this summer for the first time in his life, but it will be a much harder adjustment for his mother.

She is coping with the loss as best she can, and is eager to get back to Maine as soon as possible, very likely later this month. His parents, Wyeth said, lived a singular and isolated life. Growing up, he never once remembered them having house guests or hosting dinner parties.

At least he still has his work, and his wife, Phyllis.


These days, the younger Wyeth is mostly concerned about his latest body of work, the gull series. He has been working on the paintings for four years, and this will be the first time he’s shown them in Maine.

As part of the exhibition, he is deeply involved in the paintings’ presentation, trying to create a sort of carnival sideshow atmosphere that will give visitors the feeling of attending an old-school county fair, with barkers, hawkers and general mayhem. He is painting a banner to hang with the exhibition that says, ”Pass at your own risk, ” or words to that effect.

An epilogue to the show includes a 2006 painting, ”Inferno, Monhegan.”

It shows a scene Wyeth witnessed for many years when he lived on Monhegan, of a crude oil tank on wheels that was carted around from beach to beach to burn garbage.

The scene is hardly what we think of when we think of Monhegan, but it was a part of island life and a nice complement to the ”Seven Deadly Sins.”

Somehow, garbage and gulls go nicely together, he says.

Wyeth has always been drawn to painting animals. Over the years, he’s been obsessed with chickens, ravens, dogs and various other critters. He paints what is familiar, and does not travel to paint.

He paints what comes before him, and so the gulls made a logical choice as a subject.

”I live on an island, and they are around everywheres. And I live alone on this island pretty much most of the time, ” he said. ”And so, as with any wild animal, when you spend a lot of time with them, they kind of view me as a seagull. They fall asleep with me sitting there and whatnot.

”And they are ready models, so there I am painting them.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]

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