Renowned painter Jamie Wyeth stands outside his home, a decommissioned lighthouse on Southern Island. An under-repair bell tower stands at left. Wyeth has a show, “Unsettled,” at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland this summer. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On the grassy slope of Southern Island that overlooks the sea, a turkey carcass rotted in the sun. The bones were mostly picked clean, and the hollow rib cage remained under a perfectly blue sky.

“That’s something I’m doing with the gulls,” the painter Jamie Wyeth said. “I’m taking all the turkeys I can find from Rockland.”

Wyeth, 78, lives part time in this private haven near Tenants Harbor. The view could be on a tourism poster. His home is literally a former lighthouse. But what interests the artist most is how the seagulls that keep him company on his island rip the raw flesh from the carcass he has offered them.

“Most paintings of seagulls make them look like pigeons,” Wyeth said. “Seagulls are nasty, mean birds, and I love them. They eat one another. They’re scavengers. That side of them just fascinates me.”

And that side of Wyeth himself is the focus of an exhibition at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland this summer. “Unsettled” zeroes in on a darkness that has existed in his work for decades, a wildness that is less present in the work of his famous father and grandfather. It features more than 50 pieces, mostly paintings, that span his career. The show originated at the Brandywine Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, where the family has a long history. Curator Amanda Burdan decided to explore the angst she saw in Jamie Wyeth’s work.

She found overt examples, such as the unnerving scene in “Bean Boots” (1985). A falconer stares directly at the viewer under the shadow of his cap, and so does the raptor in the cage. Skulls and long guns hang on the walls. (“The question remaining is, who will reach the weapons first?” Burdan mused in an essay on the exhibition.)


But she also noticed something off-kilter in less obvious places. “River Trunk” (1968) is a painting of a tree, but its dark hole captured Burdan. She braced herself to defend her reasoning to the artist.

“I said, ‘This is what it makes me think of, this passageway to another world and the temptation to enter that world,’ ” she said. “ ‘Sort of like Alice’s adventures through the looking glass.’ ”

“He said, ‘Yes, that’s why I painted that tree.’ ”


The Dreadnought, Wyeth’s meticulous black-and-brass boat, carried a reporter and photographer on the short journey from Tenants Harbor to Southern Island. But the captain bypassed the dock and cut through the waves closer to the white lighthouse and adjacent bell tower. There was a figure in a bright green painting smock on the distant grass, then a bang and a puff of smoke. “The Jamie greeting,” as his captain called it, is the firing of a small cannon.

Wyeth later explained that he once used the cannon in an attempt to dissuade a tour boat that brought visitors to see his island from the waves. (His plan backfired; the blast became a selling point for the tour. But the initial reaction still amuses him, at least. “They all hit the deck,” he said with a laugh.)


The door on the house is nearly the same vivid shade as the painter’s smock. These days, Wyeth finds himself increasingly alone. His father, Andrew, died in 2009. His wife, Phyllis, and his mother, Betsy, passed in 2019 and 2020, respectively. His last dog, Iggy, died recently as well. (“I’m still dreaming about him,” Wyeth said. “I think I’ll wait until I stop dreaming about him, and then I’ll get a dog.”) So he feels the theme of this exhibition suits this moment in his life.

“It’s been sort of unsettling, to say the least,” he said. “And I think it’s sort of reflected in the work.”

But Wyeth has long been interested in something more than what he called “pretty scenes.”

“Maine has produced more terrible art than any state in the union, including a lot of my things,” he said. “Because it’s so emblematic – the lobster buoys and the white churches and all of that. If you get by that and get a little deeper, it just becomes more interesting.”

Jamie Wyeth (born 1946). “Cat Bates of Monhegan,” 1995. Oil on panel. 36 x 48 inches. Frye Art Museum. Museum Purchase, 1996.002 © Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Image courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

Wyeth also spends time at his home on Monhegan Island, where he is drawn more to the hard life of the year-round residents than the idyllic views. The exhibition includes a painting he made there called “Cat Bates of Monhegan” (1995), depicting a blond child feeding trash into a makeshift incinerator.

“Here were the seagulls trying to get to the trash, and it was all flaming and they were catching fire,” Wyeth said. “And then I’d look over, and the mailboat would be arriving, and here are all these painters with their gear and cameras going up the hill to look for lobster traps and cute children, and here, this thing was going on.”



Burdan first encountered Wyeth in an essay the painter wrote for an exhibition about artist colonies. He wrote about Monhegan – not its many living artists, but rather the presence of Rockwell Kent, who once owned the house where Wyeth now lives when he is on the island.

“What interested me was this idea that an artist would work with the ghost of someone,” Burdan said. “As a historian, I feel like I work with ghosts all the time.”

Later, she worked on a major retrospective of Wyeth’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2015. During that process, she noticed a thread winding through the work.

“They stood out to me, all of the paintings where there was something ominous happening,” she said. “There was some kind of angst or anxiety being expressed. You felt tension as the viewer looking at them, or they were outright images you would expect to find in a horror movie.”

The works of his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth, and father, Andrew Wyeth, sometimes had a haunted quality as well. Burdan pointed in particular to Andrew Wyeth’s “The Witching Hour,” an eerie scene in an empty dining room. Jamie Wyeth’s work is less controlled or photographic, with more wild brushstrokes and smears of paint. The effect, she said, “makes me feel like I’ve stepped into a dystopian novel.”


Jamie Wyeth (born 1946). “Record Player,” 1964. Oil on canvas. 47 x 28 inches. Collection of Lisa and David Spartin. © Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Image courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

The exhibition includes paintings of possibly haunted houses and screeching seagulls, the serpentine roots of a tree and the unsettling gaze of a sheep, the shadowed interior of a barn and a distant glimpse of his mother. A full section is dedicated to Wyeth’s portraits.

At times, his subjects are unnervingly direct, such as the child inviting guests to the titular “Dead Cat Museum” (1999).

At others, the figures are hidden in some way, such as the man completely turned away from the viewer in “Record Player” (1964).

“There are sometimes images where there’s another figure confronting you as the viewer, directly staring you down, like it’s a faceoff,” Burdan said. “There are other images where you are the person creeping up on someone who has their back to you, that moment of wondering, ‘What’s going on?’ What’s going to happen when this person discovers you?”


Birds are a fixture in Wyeth’s home – in wooden models on the windowsills, on pillows and in paintings. There’s a tiny plush eagle sitting atop a shelf of spices above the stove in the kitchen. For a while, Wyeth was obsessed with ravens.


“Very sketchy birds,” he said.

He wanted to paint them but couldn’t manage to get close enough to study them. An expert in Vermont helped him crack the code. Wyeth put out the word to local dairy farms and eventually had what he needed: a cow carcass so heavy that it had to be transported by barge. Sure enough, the birds came to Southern Island.

“That was the year of the raven,” he said.

“Unsettled” includes work from all stages of Wyeth’s career, but he said he does not always feel comfortable looking back in that way. He shrugged off questions about his own work, past and present.

“Generally, I find exhibitions very unpleasant,” he said. “I mean, I’m not being cute. It’s just that the things I was obsessed with – I see them now, and I wonder, ‘What in the hell was the obsession?’ It seems so right at the time, and so all that glares out at me, and you feel kind of like a jackass standing there, particularly if there are people around, like at an opening.”

But he also gave a bemused grin as he considered one such memory. Burdan chose a painting for the exhibition that the artist had forgotten: “Pom Pom’s Cadillac, Broad Cove Farm” (ca. 1965), which depicts a car that N.C. Wyeth purchased when Jamie was a teenager.


“It’s the strangest painting, and it’s so strange that I think it’s probably one of the better things in the show because I think, ‘What the hell is this about?’ ” he said. “The fins of a Cadillac, and the incongruity of it against his New England farmhouse, the incongruity of him even getting a car like that.”


Jane Bianco, a curator at the Farnsworth who worked on bringing this exhibition to Maine, cannot watch horror movies. The work in this show gives her the same kind of anxiety, but she finds it harder to look away. Take “Buzz Saw” (1969). The canvas is nearly filled with an image of the circular saw and its jagged edges.

Jamie Wyeth (born 1946). “Buzz Saw,” 1969. Oil on canvas. 30 x 30 inches. Collection of Sherry Delk Kerstetter. © Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Image courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

“It almost feels like it’s in motion to me,” she said. “The background, the way he’s painted the trees, following that arc. I feel vertigo, like I don’t want to get close to that saw because I might get cut.”

In “Spindrift” (2010), a bird’s-eye view of Southern Island in a roiling sea, Bianco thinks of her own fear of climate change and the storms that have increasingly battered her Midcoast community.

“Both his father and grandfather’s work was provocative in different ways, and he’s gone even further,” Bianco said. “His art has the ability to invade our own psyche in a more visceral way. … His, maybe, is in tune with our time, this time of high anxiety on a global level.”


The exhibit includes one of Wyeth’s 19th-century automatons – a moving mechanical device that looks like and imitates a clown – which makes Burdan think about how artificial intelligence fascinated and alarmed us then as it does now.

“What are the kinds of things that make humans feel uneasy?” Burdan said. “It is part of the human condition to have fears and anxieties, and exploring them is often thought of as therapeutic. Now, I’m not saying that going to this exhibition is going to be therapy for anybody.”

Unless your idea of therapy is riding a roller coaster or watching an Alfred Hitchcock film.

“On a micro level, it’s Jamie Wyeth and his world and how he’s negotiating it, the good and bad parts, the light and dark side,” Burdan said. “But it’s also reflective of broader culture and how some of these anxious moments become almost cathartic when you live through them.”


One piece in the exhibition is a miniature of a butcher shop, complete with hanging carcasses and blood stains. Wyeth made a number of these dioramas for himself and never intended to show them.


However, the Museum of Fine Arts finally convinced him to display a couple in his retrospective, and now “Butcher Shop” (2015) is at the Farnsworth in “Unsettled.” He insists that the pieces are lit from the inside with their tiny lightbulbs, so the viewer feels like a voyeur.

“They were instances that were important to me in my youth and growing up, and I just wanted to re-create them,” he said.

In his home on Southern Island, Jamie Wyeth tells stories about friends who have died, including Andy Warhol and Linda Bean. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In his living room on Southern Island, full of lived-in furniture and stacks of books, Wyeth delved again into memory. He lit up as he recalled the time that he and Andy Warhol bought a bunch of stuffed dogs from a taxidermy business in New York City. He talked about the funeral earlier this year for his late friend Linda Bean (“the Beanster,” as he called her) and the painting he was working on in her memory.

Does he ever feel unsettled by the solitude of this quiet island?

“It’s kind of wonderful,” Wyeth said. “And I have the gulls and whatnot, and there’s a whole pattern to them. So I cope. I’d rather cope with that than other environments. People come here and say, ‘Well, you must be running out of things to paint on this little island.’ I feel like I could live three lifetimes and still not scratch the surface.”

“That’s all I do, paint,” he added later. “I have no hobbies. It’s not all wonderful. It’s not all inspired, that’s for sure. But the opiate to me in painting is when things finally click, when you finally get a sense of the world you’re in, and so forth.”

And his current obsession? He answered with a hearty laugh.

“I can’t talk about it,” he said.

Jamie Wyeth (born 1946). “A Midsummer Night’s Dusk,” 2022. Oil, enamel, and acrylic. 39 x 29 inches. The Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection. © Jamie Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Image courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

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