SHELBURNE — Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Soaring” was acquired by the Shelburne Museum in 1960, the same year its founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, died.
The painting, tempera on masonite, is the BASE jump for “Wyeth Vertigo,” a new exhibition featuring 36 works by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and Jamie Wyeth (1946) at the Vermont museum. Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner presents “Through Wyeth Eyes” in the Webb Gallery on Saturday. The exhibition runs through Thursday, Oct. 31.
“This is a very important exhibition for Shelburne Museum and, I think, for Vermont,” said Tom Denenberg, director. “It’s built on our painting ‘Soaring,’ which is arguably one of the most important Andrew Wyeth paintings of the 1940s.
“This all started with a little aside that Joyce Hill Stoner made a couple of years ago when she came to look at ‘Soaring.’ She is the conservator who has worked with the Wyeth family since the early 1990s. She is a professor at the University of Delaware. She said, ‘Well, you know, all three generations of Wyeths employ that vertiginous perspective. You’re either looking up or you’re looking down; the worm’s eye view, the bird’s eye view.”
In “Soaring,” the viewer’s perspective is above turkey buzzards circling a tiny white farmhouse surrounded by wheat fields. It’s a disorienting position echoed throughout “Wyeth Vertigo.”
“And then she (Stoner) started riffing on this notion,” Denenberg said. “She said, ‘And you know, they all like to be strange. They all like to sort of knock you off your feet socially just as they do in this sort of use of a consistent perspective through all three generations of what is, basically, kind of the first family of American painting. It’s really a dynasty in this country.”
“Wyeth Vertigo” is a complicated loan exhibition, comprised of works that came off the walls of institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, Portland Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art Museum and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
“It’s the first time that ‘Soaring’ has been reunited with its studies. The studies and drawings are owned by the MFA in Boston since the 1940s. I don’t think there’s ever been as rich an assembly of Andrew Wyeth paintings in New England then what you see here,” Denenberg said.
Wyeth’s brother-in-law, Peter Hurd (1904-1984), taught him how to work in egg tempera in the 1940s.
“Really a Renaissance technique of working with a very fragile media,” Denenberg said. “That also begins to give you a sense of Wyeth’s somewhat kind of arch temperament; where everyone else was moving toward abstract expressionism and using radiator paint and then acrylic paint, Wyeth adopts a historical method and is a realist, at least ostensibly a realist, in painting these very meticulous paintings.”
Wyeth started sketching “Soaring” in 1942-43.
“It’s seen in public the first time in 1950. Think about that painting in the 1940s and what imagery like that meant at the end of World War II and into the Cold War. And then think about that painting before 1960 when it’s acquired by the Shelburne Museum and what, for instance, a Jackson Pollack would look like. If you conjure a purely abstract painting in your mind from the ‘50s, that is what mainstream American visual culture is in the ‘50s. This becomes something very different, and Wyeth really becomes the painter that the critics love to hate but the masses adore because he is obviously sort of touching a chord,” Denenberg said.
During the creation of “Soaring,” Wyeth kept a live turkey buzzard in his studio that reeked of carrion.
“When you look at these paintings, you will understand that Andrew Wyeth was a very weird painter. And so the whole kind of cool, existential drama of the 1950s and ‘60s when the very ether could just blow up at any given moment with the Cold War, it’s really sort of in the DNA of these paintings. They are dark paintings. There is a lot of voyage of life that goes on. There are narrative paintings … There are paintings that capture natural phenomena,” Denenberg said.
Wyeth’s 1944 “Night Hauling,” on loan from Bowdoin College Museum, captures the late August-early September phosphorescent waterworks illuminating a lobster-trap thief.
“Again, sort of pulling off of ‘Soaring’ and Joyce Hill Stoner’s comment, all three generations of Wyeths like to knock you off your pins a little bit visually,” Denenberg said.
Email Robin Caudell:firstname.lastname@example.orgIF YOU GO WHAT: "Wyeth Vertigo," an exhibition featuring the works of N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth. WHEN: Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Thursday, Oct. 31. WHERE: Webb Gallery, Shelburne Museum, 5555 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, Vt. ADMISSION: $22 adults, $11 children 5 to 18, children under 5 free. Family day pass $55. CONTACT: (802) 985-3346 RELATED EVENT: "Through Wyeth Eyes" will be presented by Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner from 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday in the Webb Gallery.