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Arts and Culture

Maine-Inspired Works Featured in Wyeth Retrospective

The artist Jamie Wyeth spends much of each year on the midcoast of Maine - and his paintings from Southern Island and Monhegan Island are a big part of a new major retrospective of his work.

The exhibit opens tomorrow at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and will travel to three other museums.

Walk through the galleries of the Jamie Wyeth retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and you realize Wyeth is a painter who is hard to characterize.

Yes, like his father, Andrew Wyeth, Jamie paints realistic landscapes of houses and barns and churches. But he also paints terrifying images of huge seagulls and ravens, and direct, uncompromising portraits of people, both famous - such as Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nureyev - and not famous.

"For Jamie, with the portraits, he described it as 'I'd like to think that I was painting in the way that the person who was sitting for me felt that he or she would have painted it that way,' " says Elliott Bostwick Davis, the show's curator. "In other words, 'I am painting a portrait that is so dead on, that's the way that person would have done it.' "

Among the portraits here, a painting recently acquired by the MFA - Wyeth's portrait of John F. Kennedy. Regarded by some art historians as one of the finest American portraits of the 20th century, Wyeth received the commission when he was only 20 years old. Davis says it's an example of Wyeth's immersive style of portraiture.

"When he was working on the posthumous portrait of the late President Kennedy, he asked for access to the two brothers, Robert and Edward Kennedy, so he could really understand family gestures, glances, traits, poses," Davis says. "And it was Edward Kennedy - Teddy Kennedy - who later became a lifelong friend - who gave him that solution of thinking with his chin on his fist. And the gesture of tapping his front teeth with a knuckle is something that Jackie Kennedy said she had observed in her husband, and the glance where one eye is looking in one direction and the other eye is slightly wandering off as though it's thinking about another scenario."

The painting bristles with intensity. "Bobby didn't care for it, he found it was too painful a reminder of his brother when he was really faced with all the important decisions of the Bay of Pigs invasion," Davis says. "Teddy felt it was - he liked the portrait. and he said, 'I like Wyeth.' "


Jamie Wyeth, of course, comes from a line of remarkable artists - not only his father, Andrew Wyeth, but also his grandfather, NC, and his aunt, Carolyn. But author Carl Little says Jamie has established himself as a painter worthy of attention beyond what his family represents.

"I think that Jamie has, on his own, carved out - or better, painted - a place for himself in Maine art history and American art history as well," Little says. "At the same time, I think he's fulfilled the legacy of what is one of the most illustrious families of artists America has ever produced."

Elliott Davis says that in Wyeth's work, you can see the influences of American artists like Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer, but also European masters, American folk art - and even pop art, like that created by his friend Andy Warhol. That combination, she says, is what makes his work different.

"You know, so many of them, the more you look - as I would say with a lot of great artists' work - the more you'll be rewarded. And for me personally, I always find a work of art that can stand up to what I call the 1,000 hours test - that if you always see something new even after 1,000 hours of looking at it, you can be pretty sure it's a great work of art."

Jamie Wyeth turned 68 this month. Carl Little is thrilled by the timing.

"I think it's just great to have a retrospective of Jamie Wyeth's work at this point in time because it gives us a chance to really see the range of his work," Little says. "It'll give us all a chance to really appraise his work and his place in art history and American art history and have a look at him and his evolution as an artist."

Artist Jamie Wyeth will be the guest on MPBN Radio's Maine Calling program, tomorrow at noon.