Jamie Wyeth (Photo courtesy of Peter Ralston)

ROCKLAND— Jamie Wyeth’s family has been helping to shape Maine art, drawing inspiration from the coast for more than a century. A new Farnsworth Museum exhibition focuses on two driving forces that influenced his work throughout his career: his love for his wife of 50 years and his attraction to Monhegan Island.

The Farnsworth will display “Phyllis Mills Wyeth: A Celebration” from June 8 through Sept. 8 and “Jamie Wyeth: Untoward Occurrences and Other Things” from June 8 through Oct. 28. The Farnsworth Museum will also host Wyeth Day on July 12, Andrew Wyeth’s birthday, at The Strand Theater in Rockland. Jamie Wyeth and American art scholar Henry Adams, who collaborated with Michael Komanecky, chief curator at The Farnsworth, to curate “Untoward Occurrences,” will discuss the artist’s recent work and how these selected pieces fit into the larger scope of Wyeth’s career.

Jamie Wyeth’s portraiture evolved over the half century he shared with his wife and creative muse, Phyllis, who passed away early this year. The exhibition includes 29 paintings and drawings created over the course of the couple’s life together, beginning with Jamie’s first portrait of his Phyllis in 1967. The selected works depict Phyllis’s vibrant spirit as a philanthropist, environmentalist, arts supporter, horsewoman and disabled rights advocate. Many of the pieces have never been displayed in public.

“Jamie’s brilliant, of course, but there is something more to these paintings,” said longtime family friend and photographer Peter Ralston. “I think they are truly among his finest. And that extra something is love. The love between the two of them is so evident. It’s right there. It’s really quite extraordinary. These paintings have never really gotten their public due. As an artist and as somebody who’s known the family all my life, as a walking, breathing human being, it’s really hard for anybody to not be profoundly moved and deeply touched. This is as much her show as his. Because it’s really about their love for each other.”

“Catching Pollen” by Jamie Wyeth. (Courtesy photo)

According to Joyce Stoner, a University of Delaware professor of material culture and a painting conservator who knows the Wyeth family, Jamie chronicled their relationship with large formal portraits (often including horses) and tiny informal moments (often with dogs). In addition to his evolving portraits of Phyllis, other paintings are metaphors of their relationship. By marrying Phyllis, Jamie had entered the world of horse racing; any of his paintings involving horse references her devotion to horses on their farm in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, or their joint adventures in the world of racetracks. Jamie and Phyllis also mentored a number of teenagers from Tenants Harbor and Monhegan; his portraits of these teenagers symbolize their shared interest in the lives of local youth.

The title of the concurrent exhibition “Jamie Wyeth: Untoward Occurrences and Other Things” is taken from a series of 11 paintings created between 2013 and 2017 depicting scenes on Monhegan Island, some real and some imagined. Komanecky and guest Curator Henry Adams, a scholar of American art at Case Western Reserve University, organized the show to highlight Wyeth’s recent perspective on the people and events of Monhegan Island, a place that has played a significant role in Wyeth’s life since childhood. Early 20th century painter Rockwell Kent, who began his lifelong love affair with the island in 1905 at the urging of his fellow artist and teacher, Robert Henri, makes an appearance in a number of Wyeth’s selected works. During his time on the island, Kent worked as a laborer, carpenter, and lobsterman, and built a house and studio for himself, in addition to a house for his mother, which is now owned by Wyeth.

The works included in “Untoward Occurrences” reveal Wyeth’s interest in storytelling with the depiction of everyday interactions among unique island characters that are slightly unsettling in nature. Wyeth embraces the rugged island lifestyle during the winter months, unlike most artists who only summer on the island, and finds inspiration in the hearty few who have built their lives upon the sea.

“Island life is a special thing,” Komanecky said. “Jamie’s subject matter includes sort of unique characters on the island, of which there are many. … It takes a special person to want to live in a place like that, especially in the winter when it can be very isolating. [This exhibition] shows Jamie’s love of Monhegan for both its beauty and its cast of characters.”

Royal family of Maine art

Jamie is the third generation of Wyeths to help shape Maine art.

The Wyeths’ relationship with Maine began in 1910, when N.C. Wyeth and Sidney Chase, a fellow artist and close friend, traveled down the Maine coast on a steamer that ran from Portland to Rockland. N.C. enjoyed success with dramatic, imaginative artwork for a plethora of published works, starting with his first commission – an illustration of a bucking bronco painted for the February 21, 1903 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. He went on to illustrate a Western story for the same publication, based on his experiences traveling out West, and eventually embarked upon illustrating classic literary works, including “Treasure Island,” “Robin Hood,” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”

By 1930, N.C. and his family were spending summers at a house they purchased in Port Clyde, where he studied the coast of Maine. N.C. was charmed by Maine’s hardy, rugged individuals whose lives were built upon the ever-changing natural elements that defined their existence.

Andrew Wyeth, N.C.’s son, was the youngest of five children whose creative connection to Maine began at an early age with guidance from his father. Together, they studied the works of Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau while exploring the definition of their relationship with nature. Andrew spent his teenage years studying and refining his artistic technique with his father and launched his career as a watercolorist in 1937 after a successful show at MacBeth Gallery in New York. Andrew also became a master of egg tempera, which is an ancient painting method that blends dry pigments with egg yolk and distilled water. His paintings depict elements of his natural surroundings with a muted palette and mysterious undercurrents. All of his paintings were based in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, where N.C. purchased 18 acres of land in 1911, or South Cushing, Maine. One of Andrew’s most iconic paintings is Christina’s World (1948), which shows a woman lying in a field facing the Olson House in Cushing; the subject of that painting was Anna Christina Olson, who lost the use of her legs due to a degenerative muscle condition.

Andrew’s son, Jamie, immersed himself in the arts at age 12, when he left public school to study with his aunt Carolyn, who was also a painter. He spent the first year drawing spheres and cubes and eventually spent eight hours a day studying, sketching, and painting, during which time his father refrained from teaching and merely offered constructive criticism.

Jamie established himself early in his career and developed a style somewhat reminiscent of his grandfather’s bold, lively illustrations. Jamie’s work as an artist is diverse and versatile. He focuses on oil painting, but has also mastered techniques in drawing, lithography, etching, egg tempera, watercolor, and mixed media, and has studied portraiture extensively over the course of his career. He studied anatomy in a Harlem morgue and worked in Andy Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory.

Jamie Wyeth painted portraits of John F. Kennedy, Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, Jimmy Carter and Andy Warhol, in addition to a menagerie of animals, including a pig who ate 22 tubes of oil paint in his studio (and went on to live a long life) and inspired a series of pig portraits.

“To me, a portrait is not so much the actual painting, but just spending the time with the person, traveling with him, watching him eat, watching him sleep,” he said in a 1997 article in The Artists Magazine. “When I work on a portrait, it’s really osmosis.”

For more information on both exhibitions and Wyeth Day, visit www.farnsworthmuseum.org.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: