Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009

 

Andrew Wyeth was the pre-eminent realist and figurative painter of the second half of the North American 20th century. 

The Brandywine River Museum near Pennsylvania’s border with Delaware mounted an exhibition of some of his work for the one hundred year anniversary of his birth. 

 

The artist’s output was very large.  A few of his works, represented below,  were in this exhibition.  Some of those represented below are in other museums and galleries.

 

 

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Portrait of his son, Andrew, by N.C. Wyeth, 1882-1945.

  This hangs in N.C. Wyeth’s studio, built 1911, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.  I don’t know the date.

 

 

Andrew Wyeth was born in 1917, son of the well-known illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, who was his first art teacher (primarily watercolour).  N.C. Wyeth’s daughter, Carolyn, was also an artist.

 

 

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Self-portrait with palette, 1909-1912, oil on canvas.  N.C. Wyeth, 1882-1945.

Family collection displayed at the Brandywine River Museum

 

In October 1945, N.C Wyeth was killed by a train on train tracks near their home.  One of his grandsons died with him.

 

 

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Walden Pond Revisited, 1932-33, oil on canvas.  N.C. Wyeth, 1882-1945, American.   Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. 

An idealistic view of the philosopher and naturalist, Henry Davis Thoreau (1817-1862) for whose work the artist had a great admiration.

 

 

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The Dusty Bottle, 1924, oil on canvas.   N.C. Wyeth, 1882-1945, American.  Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

 

 

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North Light, 1984, watercolour on paper.  Brandywine River Museum.

The studio of the artist’s father, N.C. Wyeth, painted by his son, Andrew Wyeth.  The studio was built in 1911 when N.C. Wyeth bought land for house and studio.

 

 

Andrew Wyeth, who had already moved from watercolour to tempera to his father’s disappointment, acknowledged that his father’s death altered the way he painted. 

He treated the subjects of his work with more introspection.  He sharpened his style to pin-point clarity.  His subject matter became increasingly layered with personal meaning. His landscapes, often associated with actual people, emptied and often became more bleak.

 

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The north window in N.C. Wyeth’s studio, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

 

The subjects of  Andrew Wyeth’s art include the physical environment of his two homes:  his natal home which was the farming country in the Brandywine Valley around Chadd’s Ford, about 35 miles south-west of Philadelphia.  Here he was given the run, for more than 60 years, of the farm and company of his neighbours, Karl and Anna Kuerner, immigrant farmers from Germany.

 

He also painted members of the African American community who lived in the area, some of whom worked on the farms around.  One of them lived in the Wyeth household for a time.

He painted his adopted home:  the land through which runs the St. George River of inland Maine where his wife’s family owned a farm.  Here he came to know both the Olsons and, later, the Eriksons.  All were subjects and friends for decades.

 

Wyeth had four muses:  the disabled (from a degenerative nerve disease) Christina Olson of Cushing, Maine, the exhibition of whose painting, Christina’s World, caused a sensation when it was exhibited in 1948. 

This painting was bought by MOMA, NY in 1948 and is said to be the painting most asked after by visitors. 

While MOMA, it seems, does not loan out this painting, it hangs it in a corridor outside the major displays of MOMA’s paintings.  You come across it by happenstance and you understand that it has been, almost from the moment of its sale,  outside of MOMA’s primary concentration: modern, non-representational work.

 

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 Christina’s World and detail, 1948, tempera on panel. MOMA, NY

 

Wyeth began to paint Christina Olson in 1947 when she was 54.  His last was twenty years later in 1967, a half year before her death.

Siri Erickson, whom he painted for a year, Wyeth met her and her parents in 1967 in Cushing, Maine.  Wyeth began to paint her when she was 13 and displayed none of his representations of her until she was 19.

Helga Testorf, a muse from 1970-1990, hired in 1970 to help an aging Anna Kuerner care for her husband, Karl, who had been diagnosed with leukemia.  Wyeth’s paintings and drawings of Helga (240 in all) he executed in the Kuerner house in Chadds Ford, hidden from his wife and from everyone, until revelation to the public and, with difficulty, to his wife in 1986. 

A fourth muse (painted from 1997-2000) is an Afro-American beauty called Senna Moore.  She is not represented in this blog.

 

Andrew Wyeth’s early watercolours of the 1930s were a success and in New York.

Thereafter, realism was up against large movements initiated in the United States by Marcel Duchamp and, later, the New York School away from realism and figuration and towards abstract expressionism,  conceptual art, minimalism and all the kinds of art which flourish still. 

Wyeth’s work was widely disparaged by critics from the late 1940s onwards. 

A mid-70s one-man exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, NY did not raise his profile with critics.

Critics panned the Helga paintings and drawings on display at the National Gallery in Washington DC in May, 1988.

 

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Wyeth is habitually referred to, with disdain, as a ‘mid-century’ painter as if he had not lived and worked throughout the last five decades of the 20th century and into the first years of the 21st century.  He is also referred to as a ‘regional’ painter. 

 

Regional he may have been in a geographic sense. And, of course,  Pennsylvanians and citizens of Delaware who know his work are appreciative of his painted record of a part of their rural history: a life now all but disappeared in these areas.

 

But the universal referents of his work are clear from his unflinching depictions of the relationship of humans to each other and to the land on which they live; to their animals and farms, their houses (rooms, doors, curtains, spaces, instruments of work and domestic ware) also.

To love, to female beauty, to friendship, and to desire.  To weathers of all kinds. To memory, to aging and to death. 

Attachment to place and its people, history and artifacts has a universal value because it is infused, as Andrew Wyeth pointed out, with personal memory and emotion.

His paintings are extraordinarily still so acute is the distilled vision.

Andrew Wyeth persisted despite the critical disapprobation.  Nor, unlike the painter Edward Hopper in 1960, did he go into open warfare against the dominance of the Abstract Expressionists.    By 1960, of course, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg were, in any case, already on the scene.

 

So that when you look at his last painting, Goodbye, of a few months before his death,  a gift to his wife, you can see his life as he saw it. 

On the one hand, strong and stable, functional, useful (the structure is a sail barn which was a gift from his wife and moved to this site atop a bluff).   A whole architecture of clarity and rectitude. 

And then, submerged in the water, its reflection: unsteady, unstable, fleeting, its shades and outlines and volume changing with every passing  ripple and wave and with the time of day.  Free of human control and expectations.  Free.

The artist’s boat has made its way between the two representations: the exposed in his life and the unexposed.  The journey to continue somewhere beyond our view and knowledge.

 

 

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Goodbye and detail, tempera with pencil on hardboard, 2008.

 Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.

 

The artist died in Chadds Ford and was buried in the Olson family graveyard in Cushing, Maine.

 

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Having mined a rich wake-seam, the artist left a  heritage as rich:

his son, Jamie Wyeth, a formidable artist himself.  Realism and figuration also.

 

 

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Angus and detail, oil on canvas, 1974.  Jamie Wyeth, born 1947, American.  Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

 

The artist left a thriving community at Chadds Ford dedicated to the preservation of his art and that of his family and associates; and the preservation and display of (North) American art;

 

 

The Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in a converted and expanded nineteenth century mill

 

 

The artist has left students, and a public whose admiration for his work continues to grow. Outside the Brandywine Museum, a man, an artist, told me that he had driven 10 hours from the state of Indiana as soon as he heard of this exhibition.  He was overwhelmed with ideas which Andrew Wyeth’s work had given him; and he was due to drive 10 hours back.  “I have a lot of work to do” he said.

 

Connected to the museum but a separate effort is also a conservation of land in Pennsylvania.  This was initiated by a gift of land by a Wyeth friend, neighbour, and student, a member of the du Pont family, George (Frolic) A. Weymouth.  To this others have added gifts of land in eastern and western Pennsylvania. 

The full name of the institution of which the museum is part is the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art;  and these conserved lands are administered and maintained by a part of this institution.

 

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Frolic (1936-2016), oil, enamel and acrylic on canvas, 2017.   Jamie Wyeth, American born 1947.

  Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

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The Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania, the artist’s immediate family and community

 

 

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Hoffman’s Slough and detail, 1947, tempera on hardboard panel.  Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY 

This view across the Brandywine Valley, simplified for the removal of foreground details, was included in the Whitney Annual exhibition of 1947.  This is the land where the artist grew up.

 

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Winter Fields and detail, 1942, tempera on hardboard panel.  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art, NY 

Thought to be a metaphor for the war then in progress.

 

 

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Snow Flurries and detail, tempera on hardboard panel, 1953.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Pennsylvania’s hills in winter which, with autumn, were the artist’s favourite seasons.

 

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Winter and detail, 1946, tempera on hardboard panel.  North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.

The museum notes that the inspiration for this painting was  a Wyeth neighbour,  Allan Lynch, running down Kuerner Hill near the railroad tracks where the artist’s father and his nephew were killed a few months earlier.  The running child represented loss to the artist and the hillside his father’s breathing chest.

 

 

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DSC00829 Maggie’s Daughter and detail, 1966.  The artist’s wife, Betsy.  Family collection

 

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Nicholas and detail, 1955, tempera on hardboard panel.  Collection of Nicholas Wyeth.

One of two sons of the artist and his wife.

 

 

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Trodden Weed and detail, 1951, tempera on hardboard panel.  Family collection.

The museum notes that the artist was recovering from a serious lung operation in 1951.  He would walk and in boots belonging to Howard Pyle, his father’s teacher.  Wyeth was attentive to nature from his childhood.

 

 

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Sparks and detail, 2001, tempera on hardboard panel.  The National Arts Program, Malvern, Pennsylvania 

The artist has distorted perspective and size of the room and elongated the room

 

 

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Nightsleeper and detail, 1979, tempera on hardboard panel.  Family collection.

The Wyeth’s dog, Nell, asleep on a window seat in the Wyeth home.  On the left a gristmill.  On the right the Brandywine River

 

 

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Detail of Chain Hoist, 1965, watercolour.

  Courtesty of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

 

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The Tide Mill, 1968, watercolour. 

 Courtesty of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

 

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Woodshed, 1944, tempera on panel.  Brandywine River Museum

 

 

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Thin Ice and detail, 1969, tempera on hardboard panel.  Private collection, Japan.  

The artist’s work has been popular in Japan since the 1970s for his attachment to nature and the still, meditative quality of his work.

 

 

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Karl and detail, 1948, tempera on hardboard panel.  Private collection, Albuquerque Museum, New Mexico 

Karl Kuerner, farmer, neighbour and friend of the Wyeths.

 

 

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Karl’s Room and detail, 1954, watercolour on paper.  Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

The artist had the run of the Kuerner’s house and often farm and rooms stood in for either Anna or Karl.

 

 

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Anna Kuerner and detail, 1971, watercolour on paper.  Private collection.

Karl and Anna Kuerner migrated from Germany in the 1920s and finally settled on a farm which bears their name in the Brandywine area.  Anna Kuerner was homesick throughout.

 

 

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Home Comfort and detail, 1976, watercolour and pencil on paper.  Family collection.

 

 

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Anna Climbing the Stairs and detail, 1975, watercolour and pencil on paper.  Family collection.

 

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Anna Kuerner, 1971, tempera on hardboard panel.  Private collection

 

 

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The Kuerners and detail, 1971, drybrush watercolour on paper.  Family collection.

This composition was one which evolved over time until we see how palpable was the hostility in this long-lasting marriage.

 

 

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Details of Wood Stove, 1972, watercolour and dry brush on paper.  Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine.  

 

 

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Blue-eyed Susan and detail, 1997, watercolour and graphite on paper.

 Courtesty of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

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Detail of Sharpshooter, 1997, watercolour. 

Courtesty of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

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Detail of China Blue, 1987 watercolour.  

Courtesty of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

 

Members of the Afro-American community in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

 

Commentary by an Afro-American art historian on this exhibition ran to lines familiar in the endless racial wars in the United States. 

She said that the artist ‘used’ members of the Afro-American community for the furtherance of his art and, in some cases, denied them their ‘humanity’.  This was presented as the abuse of poor people.

Andrew Wyeth  was a man of his time.  Nobody will deny that power was, and is, unequally distributed between white and black populations; and between rich and poor.

However, there is no evidence that the artist did not consider these African Americans,  as – some of them – friends and all of those he painted as equally worthy of representation as any others of his friends and subjects.  

That he had Helga Testorf pass as black is no stranger than the histories of the many Afro-Americans who have passed (pass) as white.

This is in the nature of a society in which two communities are, among many other human complexities,  foils for one another.  It is in the nature of human nature. 

And so what? 

This does not prove that Andrew Wyeth was a racist abuser. 

What it proves is how profitable is the political correctness of using race for facile finger-pointing and career preservation and self-aggrandizement. 

An intellectually and spiritually moribund exercise of a kind which impoverishes us.

What, one wonders, would this commentator have said if Andrew Wyeth had, in the course of his long life in eastern Pennsylvania, painted no African-Americans? 

Or if evidence had emerged that he had gated himself, family, studio and work and simply refused to deal with African-Americans at all?  

An opportunity was lost by this African American commentator to shed light on the interaction of white and black Americans who have an intimacy of baffling complexity.  

Andrew Wyeth painted people and the places they inhabited and the things they used without differentiating the quality of his interest, focus, or effort. 

An artist, in other words.  An artist.

 

 

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Adam and detail, 1963, tempera on hardboard panel.  Brandywine River Museum of Art.

The museum notes that Adam Johnson lived along the route which the artist took to get to the Kuerner farmstead.  A farmer himself, Adam Johnson became a friend and frequent subject of the Wyeths.  Wyeth also was interested in the inventive quality of the Johonson chicken coop and pig pen, which he also memorialized.

 

 

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Bushel Basket Study and detail, 1958, watercolour on paper with drybrush.  Family collection.

 

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Day of the Fair and detail, 1963, drybrush watercolour on paper.  Saint Louis Art Museum St. Louis, Missouri

 

 

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Detail of James Loper, 1952, pencil on paper.  Mead Art Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts

The brothers,  Ben and Bill Loper, lived in Chadds Ford and were painted often by Andrew Wyeth.  So, especially in the 1950s, was James Loper, the adopted son of Ben Loper.

 

 

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DSC00078 James Loper and detail, 1952, tempera on hardboard panel.  Brandwine River Museum

 

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James Loper and detail, 1952 (Study), pencil on paper.  Family collection

 

 

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The Drifter and detail, 1964, drybrush watercolour on paper.  Family collection.

 

 

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Chester County and detail, 1962, drybrush watercolour on paper.  Private collection 

The museum notes that this is a portrait of Tom Clark who, having fought in WW1 at the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France, retired to the Brandywine Valley.  One of the artist’s great interests was this war.

 

 

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That Gentleman (study of Tom Clark for That Gentleman), watercolour and pencil on paper, 1960.  Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

 

 

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Morning Sun and detail, (study of Tom Clark for That Gentleman), 1959, watercolour on paper with drybrush. Private collection

 

 

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Tom and His Granddaughter, 1959, pencil on paper.  Family collection.

 

 

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Spring, 1978, tempera on hardboard panel.  Brandywine River Museum.

Karl Keuerner became ill with leukemia.  The artist represents him at the bottom of Kuerner Hill near the place in which his own father had been killed decades earlier.  The artist is reflecting on death and regeneration.

 

 

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It was when Helga Testorf joined the Kuerner household to take care of Karl Kuerner in his final illness that Andrew Wyeth met her.

 

 

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Lovers and detail, drybrush watercolour on paper, 1981.    Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009, American.   Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.

Beginning in 1970, Wyeth completed 240 drawings and paintings of Helga Testorf.  He told no-one about this.  He did not tell his wife, Betsy.

It was Betsy who gave this painting the name Lovers when she came to know of the Helga paintings in 1986. 

Betsy said the painted shadows implied the presence of a man.  She also said that the Helga paintings seemed to her to be ‘like a ballet: erotic, beautiful but untouchable’. 

 

 

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Black Velvet and detail, dry brush watercolour on paper, 1972. Private collection. 

A painting of Helga Testorf.

 

 

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Barracoon and detail, 1976, tempera on hardboard panel. Family collection.

 

The Museum notes that the artist considered this his best nude painting.  This is a painting of Helga Testorf which evolved from an extant watercolour.  He changed the colour of her skin.

This is not the only time the artist has used racial masquerade to hide the identity of this subject.  These paintings and this technique have, of course, been the subject of outrage and dismay.

Baracoon, the name chosen by his wife, means (Spanish) a temporary enclosure for slaves.  Andrew Wyeth gave this painting to his wife in 1976 without revealing that this was Helga Testorf.  That revelation came only when he presented all his paintings of Helga Testorf in 1986.

 

 

 

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Untitled (Helga Looking From Afar) and detail, 1979, watercolor.  

Courtesty of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

 

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Firewood (Study for Ground Hog Day), 1959.  Drybrush and watercolour on paper.  Courtesy of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

 

 

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First Snow and detail, 1959, watercolor on canvas.  Andrew Wyeth,1917-2009,  American.  Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.

A painting of the farmhouse belonging to the Kuerners.

 

 

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Tenant Farmer, 1961, tempera on masonite.  Delaware Art Museum.

  The artist said that this deer seemed to him to be almost a part of the building.  Then his dream was invaded by hundreds of deer and he got rid of the image in his mind by painting this.

 

 

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Evening at Kuerner’s, 1970, watercolour on paper with drybrush.  Collection of Nicholas Wyeth.

The Museum notes that Karl Kuerner, whose room it is lit up, was very ill at the time this was painted and that that light represented the farmer’s ‘flickering soul’.

 

 

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Spring Fed and detail, 1967, tempera on hardboard.  Private collection.

The Museum notes that this is an old springhouse on the Kuerner farm.  Milk in the stone sink was chilled by piped spring water.  The artist infused this real place with childhood fantasies of medieval knighlty life and also the sadness surrounding his father’s death.

 

 

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Cooling Shed and detail, 1953, tempera on hardboard.  Philadelphia Art Museum 

A milk cooling shed on the Wylie Farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. 

The museum notes that the artist said that this portrayal is an abstract in every way and that he did not see himself as either a realist or an abstractionist.  He did not embrace photographic realism and his efforts were to represent the thing or person or place and its spirit.

 

 

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Young Bull and detail, 1960, drybrush watercolour on paper. Collection of Nicholas Wyeth on display at the Brandywine River Museum in 2017.  On the Kuerner Farm.

 

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Roast Chestnuts, tempera on hardboard panel, 1956.  Brandywine River Museum.

Chestnuts are being sold along a rural route which is now a highway, Route 202.

 

 

 

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Raccoon and detail, 1958, tempera on hardboard panel.  Brandywine River Museum

Abused hunting dogs.

 

 

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Detail of Chain Hoist, 1965, watercolour. 

Courtesty of the Sommerville Manning Gallery, Breck’s Mill, Greenville, Delaware

 

 

Maine

 

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Christina Olson and detail, tempera on hardboard panel, 1947.  Myron Kunin Collection of American Art, Minneapolis Minnesota on loan to

Christina Olson sitting on the back door of the Olson home.

 

 

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Detail of Miss Olson, 1952, tempera on hardboard panel.  Private collection

 

 

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Anna Christina and detail, 1967, tempera on hardboard.  Jointly owned by the Brandywine River  Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The museum notes that this was the last portrait of Christina Olson and was painted a half-year before her death in Jannuary 1968.  This and the death of her brother, Alvaro, one month prior, brought to an end three decades of the artist’s association with them.

 

 

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Wind from the Sea and detail, 1947, tempera on hardboard panel.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 

The museum notes that Andrew Wyeth considered this to be a portrait of Christina Olson who had begun to have serious health problems from a degenerative nerve disease.  He also considered that it was a portrait of the decline of the Olson home, an 18th century structure in whose attic this curtain hung.

 

 

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Alvaro and Christina, 1968, watercolour on paper.  Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine

The museum notes that this for the artist was a portrait of both Christina Olson and her brother, Alvaro, her contstant companion.  She died early in 1968 one month after his death.

 

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The Finn and detail, 1969, drybrush watercolour on paper.  Private collection.

The Museum notes that George Ericson was an immigrant from Finland.  The artist met him, his wife and his daughter, Siri in 1967 and began painting Siri in 1968.

 

 

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 Ericksons and detail, 1973, tempera on hardboard panel.  Private collection.

 

 

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Indian Summer and detail,  1970, tempera on hardboard panel.  Brandywine River Museum.

The museum notes that Wyeth met Siri Erickson of Cushing, Maine after the death of Christina Olson.  It was with her father’s permission and with his wife’s full knowledge that he created a series of nudes of this young woman between 1968 and 1973.  These paintings, which came as surprise to the artist’s critics for their sensuality.

These paintings predate the Helga paintings and were not shown until Siri Erickson was 19 in 1973.

 

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Siri and detail, tempera on hardboard panel, 1970.  Brandywine River Museum

 

 

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Teel’s Island, 1954, watercolour on paper with dry brush.  Private collection

 

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Airborne and detail, 1966, tempera on hardboard panel.  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas 

The Museum notes that violence is being intimated on a brilliantly sunny day.

 

 

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Adrift and detail, 1982, tempera on hardboard panel.  Family collection.

The Museum notes that the artist was concerned about the health of his friend, the fisherman Walt Anderson who died five years later.

 

 

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Lime Banks and detail, 1962, tempera on hardboard panel.  Private collection.

 

 

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The Carry and detail, 2003, tempera on hardboard panel.  Private collection.

 

 

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Snow Hill and detail, 1989. tempera on hardboard panel.

The museum notes that this is both dreamscape and memorial to the people the artists had known for 50 years at Chadds Ford.  Karl Kuerner is is a military coat on the extreme left holding hands with Anna.  Her hand is held by Bill Loper.  Then there is Helga.  Making up the circle are thought to be Allan Lynch and Adam Johnnson.

 

 

 

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