The Farnsworth Art Museum will open “Robert Indiana: The Hartley Elegies” on May 29. Shown here is “Robert Indiana: The Hartley Elegy Series: The Berlin Series, KvF I,” a serigraph from 1990, measuring 76-3/4 inches tall and 53 inches wide. Courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

It was no secret that Robert Indiana harbored jealousies toward the Wyeth family. He minded his manners in public, but did not hesitate to privately express his belief that curators and writers in Maine paid too much attention to the Wyeths and too little attention to him.

Three years since his death at his home on Vinalhaven island, Indiana might well have been pleased he will get attention this summer, alongside the Wyeths, for a body of work that he created after arriving in Maine and that one prominent art scholar believes stands among the most significant accomplishments of his career. The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, which gave Indiana his first exhibition in Maine in 1982, will open “Robert Indiana: The Hartley Elegies” on May 29.

The museum will exhibit 10 silkscreen prints from a series of prints and paintings that Indiana made between 1989 and 1994 inspired by and in tribute to American modernist painter Marsden Hartley, who was born in Maine and lived briefly on Vinalhaven, 40 years before Indiana arrived as a year-round resident in the late 1970s.

Indiana’s Hartley exhibition will take its place alongside new exhibitions by and about the Wyeths, who have been closely associated with the midcoast of Maine for the past century and with the Farnsworth since the museum’s formative years in the 1940s. Newly opened is “Betsy’s Gift: The Works of N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth,” based on a recent gift of paintings and works on paper from the family matriarch, who died last year at age 98, as well as “Betsy Wyeth: Partner and Muse,” with paintings by Andrew Wyeth.

Betsy Wyeth was the wife of Andrew, mother of Jamie and daughter-in-law of N.C. Both Wyeth exhibitions are open now. They were scheduled to open next weekend, but the museum pushed up the schedule. Still to come is “George Tice and Andrew Wyeth: Parallel Visions,” offering a look at how two very different artists and contemporaries interpreted the same geography, opening June 12.

Andrew Wyeth’s “Room after Room,” a 1967 watercolor from the Olson House in Cushing, is on view now as part of “Betsy’s Gift” at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. 2021 Andrew Wyeth/Artists Rights Society, courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

Michael Komanecky, chief curator at the Farnsworth, said the timing of the Indiana exhibition, generally coinciding with the anniversary of his death, is not an intentional tribute per se, though it worked out that way. It’s the first significant exhibition of Indiana’s work in Maine since he died at age 89 in May 2018. His estate is mired in ongoing legal morass, though a signed settlement could end most of the litigation if it takes effect, as planned, after May 17.

Indiana had been in Maine a decade when he began the Hartley project in 1989. It consisted of 18 oil paintings, of various shapes and sizes, and accompanying prints, and it consumed his creative output for most of five years. The series represents the most significant work Indiana made after relocating to Maine in 1978, said Princeton art historian and Indiana friend John Wilmerding.

“The suite of ‘Hartley Elegies,’ paintings and prints, are Indiana’s masterworks of his later career,” Wilmerding said. “Their grandeur of scale, complexity of composition, balance of colors, and symbolic richness all fulfilled his highest ambitions of the time. … They push the conventions of history painting and portraiture, and rework earlier modernist abstraction in Indiana’s personal Pop vocabulary.”

The series was inspired by the cubist paintings Hartley made of a young German officer named Karl von Freyburg, with whom Hartley was close and likely intimate. Hartley synthesized cubist and German expressionism when he made his “German Officer” paintings in 1914-15.

Two decades later, in 1938, he spent the summer in a house on Vinalhaven, close to where Indiana later lived. When Indiana learned about Hartley’s association with Vinalhaven and the story behind the German officer paintings, he set out to create his own tribute to Hartley. He dissected Hartley’s paintings and paid homage to the modernist painter over a series of paintings and prints. Komanecky called Indiana’s effort “a monument of 20th century American art. … The paintings and prints demonstrate Indiana’s remarkable gift for incorporating language, geometry and bold colors into his work, but their meaning goes far deeper than these measures of artistic talent.”

Indiana dedicated himself to the project because he felt kinship with Hartley, Komanecky said. “Hartley was gay, and Bob clearly understood the difficulties that Hartley experienced as a gay man – the same kind of challenges he himself faced in a much different time, yet the challenges were still there. Bob had sympathy for and an understanding of the difficulties of being a gay artist,” he said.

The exhibition acknowledges Hartley’s influence on Indiana, the significance of Indiana’s creative output in Maine and the Farnsworth’s long association with Indiana over the past 40 years. The length and depth of the museum’s association with Indiana is surpassed only by its dedication to the Wyeths, whose relationship with the museum dates to the 1940s.

Andrew Wyeth painted this egg tempera portrait of his wife, Betsy, in 1966. It is titled “Maga’s Daughter” and it on view at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection© 2021 AndrewWyeth/Artists Rights Society (ARS)

The Betsy Wyeth gift, announced this spring, expands the museum’s ability to tell a deeper story about each generation of Wyeth painter and their view of the world and their surroundings, Komanecky said. Included among the 27 works are two watercolors by Andrew Wyeth from the Olson House in Cushing, where he painted “Christina’s World” in 1948. The newly acquired works are “Geraniums” from 1960 and “Room after Room” from 1967.

In the former, Wyeth shows the clapboard farmhouse of Christina and Alvaro Olson, looking in from bright sunshine through a closed six-over-six window to the darkened interior, a solitary seated figure and geranium offering a dash of life and color. In “Room after Room,” we look into the home through an open door, from a storage area, at a figure in a chair with empty rooms and an empty chair beyond.

N.C. Wyeth painted this oil painting, “Harbor at Herring Gut,” in 1925, soon after arriving in the midcoast as a regular summer visitor in 1920. Courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

There are mainland scenes from Port Clyde by N.C. and paintings from Monhegan and Monhegan characters by Jamie.

“The Islander” by Jamie Wyeth, an oil-on-canvas painting, measuring 33 inches by 44 inches. Courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

“The largest number of works in the gift are work by Jamie Wyeth, and what is exciting about that is included are a couple of his more iconic works, but also included are a number of works he did as a teenager, giving us and visitors the opportunity to see how his palette developed over the entire rest of his career,” Komanecky said. “And the works of N.C. are especially important from my perspective, because they include some of his major paintings, as opposed to illustrations, that focus on scenes in and around Port Clyde, where the Wyeth family had been coming summers since 1920. These demonstrate his talent as a painter that, at least for some, raise the what-if question – what if he had decided to become a painter instead of an illustrator?”

That theme has been raised in other recent exhibitions, specifically “N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives” at the Portland Museum of Art in 2019. The Betsy Wyeth gift to the Farnsworth adds to the conversation.

“I see considerable talent,” Komanecky said. “What if he had gone to the Art Students League” instead of training to become an illustrator? We get a glimpse of that in “Fisherman’s Family” and other scenes from the midcoast – the paintings lean toward overdramatic, but evoke an authentic sense of place.

“Betsy Wyeth: Partner and Muse” focuses on the portraits Andrew did of his wife from the summer they met, in 1939, until he died in 2009. Wyeth had many models over the years – Christina Olson, Siri Erickson, Helga Testorf – but Betsy was his one true muse, said longtime family friend and photographer Peter Ralston.

“He painted Helga for 15 years, but the best model he ever had, hands down, was Betsy,” said Ralston, who photographed the Wyeths over many years. “They are multiple layers and deeper than anything he ever did with Helga.”

Peter Ralston’s photo of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth and their dog Nome, “That Hour.”

Among the paintings in the portrait show is “Maga’s Daughter,” an egg tempera from 1966 never exhibited in Maine. The title references the nickname Betsy Wyeth and her sisters sometimes used for their mother. The exhibition also includes several watercolors and drawings that have never been shown in public.

Raltson keeps a quote from Andrew Wyeth near his work station. It says, “One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love.”

“With Betsy he didn’t have to go far but, boy, did it ever go deep,” Ralston said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: