Andrew Wyeth, Soaring, 1942-1950, tempera on Masonite, 48 x 87 inches. ©Andrew Wyeth
There's something unsettling about the paintings of N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. All three — father, son and grandson — use disorienting perspective and ominous imagery to "knock you off your pins," said Shelburne Museum director Thomas Denenberg, who co-curated the remarkable exhibit. "Wyeth Vertigo" opens next week.
"Strange is a term of endearment in the Wyeth world," Denenberg told a group of reporters at a preview of the show today. He stood before the enormous, foreboding Andrew Wyeth piece "Soaring," in which a trio of turkey buzzards seem to be descending toward a small white house that sits unnervingly exposed in an open field.
The tempera painting, part of the museum's permanent collection, was the impetus for the ambitious exhibit, which includes 39 works on loan from personal collections, the Wyeth family and museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, Portland Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art Museum and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
The show also includes preparatory drawings for "Soaring" displayed alongside the finished painting for the first time. Wyeth kept a captured turkey buzzard in his studio for reference, Denenberg explained, after enlisting a neighbor to lure the bird into a trap with a calf placenta.
"There's a lot of darkness here," said Denenberg, noting that Wyeth's image of dive-bombing birds had terrifying implications in the 1940s and ’50s. "People were thinking about bombers," he said. "Clearly the implication is, there's something dead down there."
Denenberg called the Wyeths "the first family of American painting." N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) was his era's premier illustrator of adventure books and magazine articles, and his haunting paintings — including one called "The Drowning" (pictured), which depicts a small, empty boat washed up on a rocky shore — are part of this exhibit.
N.C.'s son, Andrew (1918-2009), was a famous realist painter probably best known for his 1948 work "Christina's World." But the legacy doesn't end there. Andrew's son, Jamie, born in 1946, is still painting oddly disquieting scenes, using seagulls as avatars for human emotion and playing with that wonky Wyeth perspective to chilling effect.
"Wyeth Vertigo" opens on Saturday, June 22, at Shelburne Museum. Co-curator Joyce Hill Stoner, a University of Delaware professor and close friend to the Wyeth family, gives a gallery talk at 2 p.m.