Andrew Wyeth’s African American Friends

From Wikipedia’s entry for Andrew Wyeth, the son of the famous illustrator Newell Convers Wyeth (N.C. Wyeth):

Andrew Newell Wyeth (1917-2009) was a visual artist, primarily a realist painter, working predominantly in a regionalist style. He was one of the best-known U.S. artists of the middle 20th century.

In his art, Wyeth’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine.

Andrew Wyeth with his friend Ben Loper, the subject of Wyeth’s painting “A Crow Flew By.”

I noticed that many of the people Wyeth painted were black, but Wikipedia said nothing about them. I found this, from Wyeth’s Black Models:

“I’d go over to paint H. F. Dupont in the morning. I’d have to be let into Winterthur [the Dupont mansion, now a museum] by guards, and be ‘received.’ Then, in the afternoon, I’d walk over to Ben Loper’s house in the community,” recalls Wyeth, “and would be so much more relaxed, so much more natural.” The Loper portrait, A Crow Flew By — the words uttered by the subject as Wyeth painted him in 1950 — is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and numbers among the 74 paintings, watercolors, and drawings in the traveling exhibition “Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends,” which debuted at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, where it can be seen through the 13th of this month.

That month was May, 2001. So, there is a book (Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends), a 100-plus collection, and a traveling exhibition dedicated solely to Wyeth’s African American friends. It was assembled by Wyeth and his wife while Wyeth was still alive, over 16 years ago. Why doesn’t any of this appear in Wikipedia?

It is the first public overview of the artist’s depictions of the people and sites in a small African American community in Chadd’s Ford, which had been known as “Little Africa” and originated as a Quaker stop on the Underground Railroad. As a child, Wyeth played with the descendants of those men and women who settled in the region, and throughout his adult life, he painted them. His sensuous depictions of Moore, who began posing for him in 1997, bring to mind the nude images of the blonde Helga Testorf, a German neighbor Wyeth secretly painted between 1971 and 1985. “I’m involved with the people I paint,” he says. “They become my friends.”

The book’s text consists of brief captions in which Andrew Wyeth comments on the subject, circumstance, and experience of creating the images. “They were easy friendships,” he says of his relationships with his models. “They posed whenever I asked them to. How pure it seemed, to be able to paint where they lived. It was not studio painting.” In Chester County (1962), for instance, Tom Clark, an elderly black man, is shown upstairs in his bedroom. Bald with a white stubble beard and strikingly high cheekbones, he is depicted in profile, seated in a wooden armchair beside a quilt-covered bed.

Recently, the Wyeths laid out and examined more than 50 watercolor and pencil drawings of the late Tom Clark. “He welcomed me so easily. I painted him in every angle — seated, lying down, bending over. I lived with him for almost a month,” Wyeth says. “He would cook for me.” The artist gave a study he did for That Gentleman (1960), which also features Clark, to the actor Morgan Freeman, who was so moved by the “Little Africa” images that he volunteered to narrate the show’s accompanying audio guide without pay.

Below are some portraits of Tom Clark. There are a few more in the “Close Friends” collection from the Mississippi Museum of Art’s show at the Traditional Fine Arts Organization.

“That Gentleman” 1960

“Chester County” 1962

“Tom Clark” 1962

“The Garret Room” 1962

I like what Sherry Howard says about this last one: “Tom Clark was a tall stately man who was a fixture in the community. Wyeth painted him napping, his long frame looking as weary and fragile as the bed he laid in.”

The Mississippi Museum of Art Director R. Andrew Maass said, “These works are, perhaps, among the artist’s purest paintings, ones that are virtually devoid of metaphor and symbolism.” There is something different about them, more raw, unlike his famous Christina’s World. I think that’s why I like them.

One thought on “Andrew Wyeth’s African American Friends

  1. Pingback: Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends, The Book | Fanatic Cook

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