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Why Do Critics Hate This Artist?

August 31, 2016
Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth

It’s one of the most famous works ever created by an American artist, so years ago I was surprised to discover it on a wall near a men’s room at New York’s MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). I wasn’t alone staring at this iconic painting; dozens of others were clustered around Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, a painting that captured the public’s attention as soon as it was finished in 1948, at the same time drawing the scorn of art critics. When I was taking art classes in the 70s, it was fashionable to trash Wyeth’s work.

 

 

 

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, 1948

 

Andrew Wyeth was born into what would become one of America’s great artistic dynasties; his father was famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who created iconic illustrations for children’s classics like Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Andrew’s son Jamie would also become a famous artist and is best known for his stunning posthumous portrait of JFK.

 

N.C. Wyeth worked mostly in oils, but towards the end of his life he began painting in egg tempera— finely ground paint pigment mixed with egg yolk and water—a medium popular in Europe before the Renaissance. Anyone who has ever tried to scrape dried egg yolk from a plate can testify to the durability of this technique. Young Andrew must have watched his father paint with egg tempera and eventually quit working with oils to follow his father’s example. Unlike oil paint that has thickness and can be used to build textures, egg tempera has no body. Forms can only be created using meticulous time-consuming crosshatching on firm smooth surfaces like wood or untempered Masonite. Artists have been known to choose this technique because of its capacity for rendering the astonishing details so characteristic of Wyeth’s work.

 

 

Christina's World detail

 

Had Andrew Wyeth launched his career in the 20s or 30s his work might have been better received by critics, as was true for the work of Grant Wood (who painted American Gothic in 1930) and other regional Midwest painters famous for bringing freshness to “American” realism.

 

 

 

 American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930

 

World War II saw many famous painters fleeing the Nazis by coming to America, bringing with them the influence of even more famous artists who stayed behind. These artists were no longer interested in realism. Inspired by the likes of Picasso, Miro, Mondrian, Klee and Kandinsky, American artists like Jackson Pollock pushed the limits of abstraction to create an Abstract Expressionist school, shifting the avant-garde art capital from Paris to New York.

 

 

 

 

Convergence by Jackson Pollock 1952

 

When Andrew Wyeth created Christina’s World, critics were in no mood to appreciate what they perceived as slavish realism bordering on mere illustration. His incredible technique and ability to render details alienated those who felt such effects best left to photography. Critics also complained that the meticulous details did little to enliven a dead or lifeless ambiance.

 

Andrew Wyeth’s art has always been popular with the public; his first show at age twenty sold out. It’s true that Wyeth’s paintings can be depressing, but I’ve never been as quick as the critics in dismissing his work. In fact, paintings like Christina’s World, showing crippled neighbor Christina Olson crawling across an empty field, aren’t all that realistic and bear only a faint resemblance to what Wyeth actually saw. Christina Olson was in her mid-fifties at the time and rather stout; Wyeth’s wife Betsy modeled the body, and the topography and house were changed to enhance the mood.

 

Andrew Wyeth is not one of my favorite painters, but Christina’s World is a true American masterpiece deserving of being hung in a better location than one near a restroom.

 

 

 

What do you think?

 

 

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Comments

21 Comments
She's supposed to be crippled? I thought she was just lounging in the grass. Anyway, I think on the whole the public likes stuff that actually looks like something as opposed to paint just thrown around. I sure do. The Pollock stuff has that look that makes ordinary people think, "Heck, I can do that--and did in kindergarten with finger paint."
By: PT Dilloway on August 31, 2016
Although I'm a huge fan of Salvadore Dali, paintings of exquisite realism take my breath away. I love "Christina's World." It definitely deserves a place of greater honor than the wall outside of a men's room.
By: Susan Swiderski on August 31, 2016
I also did not know she was crippled- I have always admired Andrew Wyeth's art- and it has befuddled me that he was not appreciated more. The fact that someone at MOMA thought his painting only rated a wall near the men's room only reflects on that person who must have a very small mind. Jack the Dripper did not have the talent that Wyeth had.
By: Kathe W. on August 31, 2016
I went to a Wyeth collection display at the DeYoung Museum in the early '70s. There was a huge crowd
By: Uncle Skip on August 31, 2016
Bollocks to Pollock! I liketh Wyeth.
By: Val on August 31, 2016
I'm not familiar with his work, but to my eyes this painting leaves me thinking of the paranormal. Does it deserve better placement... of course.
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 31, 2016
I know this painting even when I was a little girl and found it haunting and depressing but I could not take my eyes off of it. I was amazed at the detail in the painting and I was a kid of 5! I was a strange kid who loved looking at art books. Anyhoo, the art world is such a biting world and downright nasty. Why this would be next to the bathroom is beyond me but whoever has the control over this dislikes the artist. Have you been watching Fake or Fortune on PBS? I love that program and it shows how nasty the art world can be and how one art house holds so much power.
By: Birgit on August 31, 2016
The man had a lot of talent. The only talent I see in Jackson Pollock's work is the ability to make money!!
By: fishducky on August 31, 2016
As an untutored and unsophisticated art lover, I am afraid he is one of my favorites. I went to the museum in PA and really loved the artwork.
By: Tabor on August 31, 2016
What do I know, I love his work. A friend digitally altered a print of his painting "His Master's Bed" which was a favorite of mine. She took his dog off the bed and put both of my pets on it. Sacrilege I know but it now hangs happily on the wall above my bed.
By: Arkansas Patti on August 31, 2016
I've always liked Andrew Wyeth. I know the naysayers but he had something put together that spoke to you.
By: red Kline on August 31, 2016
Sometimes i think critics become critics because they cannot actually do what they so quickly criticize. His works are amazing, although a bit too depressing at time to have hanging around the house.
By: messymimi on August 31, 2016
a.wyeth is my favorite artist. i 'copied' his christina's world in a high school art class in tempura paint. it hangs on the wall in front of me as i type this. i have a print of 'master bedroom' in my bedroom. i have adored 'open house' for years but cannot afford to purchase it as it is not in 'print' form. *sigh*
By: TexWisGirl on August 31, 2016
It amazes me how critics often sway people into liking crap and not liking that which simply entertains. An example is how often the best picture is awarded to movies that almost noone really likes..."The English Patient" while a comedy has never won best picture.
By: cranky on August 31, 2016
I've never given Wyeth any thought. Now that you've pointed out his work to me, I'd like to see it for myself. Christina's World must be beautiful in person. I didn't know she was crippled until you said so, but I knew something was wrong because of the placement of her hands. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on August 31, 2016
It is a masterpiece. I didn't know about the egg tempera. Fascinating detail. Another excellent and informative post. Thanks for sharing.
By: Tom Cochrun on August 31, 2016
It's a very evocative piece. I still don't understand why Wyeth was hated/criticized. The arguments against his work don't seem at all legitimate.
By: Robyn Engel on August 31, 2016
I'm not familiar with Wyeth but Christina's World struck me as haunting, evoking distance and loneliness. Obviously I'm a complete art pleb because I reckon Pollock plagiarized from the workmen's dustsheets when they decorated his living room.
By: Botanist on August 31, 2016
We had a chance to visit the Brandywine museum in Pennsylvania which has the Wyeth studio - but we went to the battlefield instead (perils of being married to a historian - ha!).
By: The Bug on September 1, 2016
I'm not. Critic, but I think it's a beautiful piece of work. R
By: Rick Watson on September 1, 2016
it's why I pay no attention to critics and disliked art history.
By: Ellen Abbott on September 2, 2016

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