Andrew Wyeth: a painter's farewell
A rambling by Tom Knapp

They lined up by the hundreds Saturday morning, braving the cold, the icy sidewalks and the general grayness of a southeastern Pennsylvania winter's day to pay their respects to a great American artist and local boy made good.

Andrew Wyeth -- whose work often celebrated the simple, almost monochromatic rural landscape surrounding his lifelong home in Delaware County and the weathered faces of the people who lived there -- would probably have loved the scene.

The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., waived admission fees for the day as a tribute to the late artist and to mark the first time Wyeth's most famous painting, "Christina's World," was displayed there. The iconic painting, depicting a half-paralyzed woman sprawled in a field near a rustic Maine farmhouse and barn, was on two-day loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The museum was decked out in black bunting, and people left piles of fresh flowers near the door to honor Wyeth, who died Jan. 16 in his sleep at his home in Chadds Ford.

"Rather than have a memorial, they chose to celebrate his art," said Natasha Halenda, a Chadds Ford native and Franklin & Marshall College graduate. "It's amazing," she added, looking at "Christina's World" with wide eyes. "The piece is stirring. We're fortunate to be able to see it up close like this."

Wyeth's work is located on the third floor of the Brandywine, overlooking the river from which it takes its name. "Christina's World," framed in simple, unadorned wood, was centrally displayed, the first thing most people saw as they entered the room.

The second thing was the imposing security guard who stood impassively by, a concession to MOMA to safeguard the valuable piece. On at least one occasion, an older couple managed to snap a few surreptitious pictures of the painting on cell-phone cameras before the guard noticed and asked them to stop.

Often reproduced, the famous egg tempera painting revealed the careful nature of Wyeth's brush, from the detailed lines of the grassy meadow to the texture of Christina's hair, the fibers of her dress and the dust layered on her hands and arms. Many people leaned in closely to examine the brushwork. One young man stood nearby, sketching details from the painting at a furious rate.

"The real thing -- I never saw it before. Only prints," said Larry Jones of Landenberg. "But the original -- it's wonderful."

"It's beautiful," agreed Michael Kahler of West Chester.

Although this was Kahler's first visit to the Brandywine, his wife Rhoda is a regular. "Andrew Wyeth's death made us realize what a treasure we had," she said. "He was local, right at our fingertips."

"It's wonderful, and more," said Liz Flynn of Clifton Heights.

"I'm here to see 'Christina's World.' I'm a big fan of Andrew Wyeth, as well as the other Wyeth family artists," she said. "But I didn't expect to get so close to the piece. It's just there for you to take from it what you can."

The noise in the gallery was subdued, almost reverent. Many of the people there had stood for more than an hour in a line that started on the second floor and snaked up the stairs and through the N.C. Wyeth gallery before reaching the Andrew Wyeth collection.

Not everyone was as eager to view the art. One young girl listened attentively as her father read the description beside Wyeth's famous "Wolf Moon" painting, then loudly exclaimed, "I had almost that exact dream just a few days ago. Can we go now?"

By the end of the day, museum employees had counted nearly 4,000 guests, breaking the previous one-day attendance record of 3,000. A security guard said people were lined up when the doors opened at 9:30 a.m., and 537 people passed through the doors in the first 15 minutes. Museum spokeswoman Lora Englehart said Brandywine usually gets 100 to 200 visitors per day. "We had no idea if we would get 50 people today, or if we would get a mob," she said. "We got the mob."

Many were there specifically to see "Christina's World." Others wanted to see Wyeth's much ballyhooed final painting, "Goodbye," which has never before been shown.

Although the painting of a scene along the Maine coast was apparently dubbed "North Atlantic" by Wyeth's wife, Betsy (who named most of his work), she retitled it "Goodbye" after his death.

By any name, the work is prophetic in its imagery. The windswept scene shows a stark, startlingly white, barn-like house on a bluff overlooking the water. To the left, a sloop sails out of view, just about to disappear off the canvas. The painstaking detail -- from the scrubby brush along the shoreline to the reflection of the house in the ebbing tide and the sloop's wake -- shows the 91-year-old artist's skills were not waning.

A frequent visitor to the museum, John McClenahan of Garnet Valley said "Goodbye" is "very impressive ... and very different for Wyeth. It doesn't look like his other tempera works."

"I love the simplicity of his work. It's so poignant," said Geri Kendro of Northeast, Md. "We're here to honor him, to be a part of it."

Her husband, Nick Kendro, gestured at "Christina's World" and smiled. "It's really something, to know that this was the actual piece he worked on."

by Tom Knapp
1 February 2009