Farnsworth Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine, photo by Brain Vanden Brink
By Leslie Busler
Creativity and talent are often passed along the family tree, but rarely does a family produce three successive generations of fine artists. One of the most prominent American families to have such a legacy N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth—is being honored this month with the opening of a new gallery and study center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME.
Housed in both a remodeled church that dates back to the 1870s and a new museum wing, the Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine holds more than 4,500 drawings, paintings, photographs, studies, and archival materials related to Maine, all donated by the Andrew and Jamie Wyeth families.
The artists’ strong ties to the state date back to the 1930s when N.C. and his wife Carolyn bought a summer home in Port Clyde. N.C. made his name as an illustrator for magazines such as Harper’s and books like Treasure Island and Last of the Mohicans, but he treasured the time spent at the Maine home where he could let his imagination run free and paint what pleased him. His son Andrew also found great inspiration during the many summers he spent there. One of his best-known paintings, Christina’s World, was inspired by a home owned by friends, and Andrew and his wife still live in the state today. Maine has also left an indelible impression on the third generation in the artistic dynasty, Jamie Wyeth. He paints nearly all of his works in either Maine or Pennsylvania.
The Farnsworth Art Museum is an appropriate site for the center, not only because it’s located in Maine but because the family and the museum have a longstanding relationship. Before the Farnsworth opened in 1948, the trustees purchased four watercolors by Andrew Wyeth, then considered an emerging artist. In the years since, the Farnsworth held the first solo museum exhibition for each artist, as well as other exhibitions of their work. Museum director Christopher Crossman says that establishing this center was inevitable. “We’ve had a strong, ongoing commitment to the work of the entire Wyeth family,” he says.
When in 1991 the museum acquired the infamous Olson House pictured in Christina’s World, the Wyeths began contemplating the Farnsworth as a home for their collection. It all came to pass in 1995 when the Farnsworth staff approached the family about acquiring the vacant Pratt Memorial Methodist Church near the museum and turning it into a gallery for their works. The Wyeths agreed.
Ground was broken last June, and construction began on a new wing linked to the main building by a lobby extension. The result is a U-shaped structure with a courtyard facing the church, which is now known as the Wyeth Gallery. The new wing houses a study center for scholars and researchers, and between the study center and the lobby is a small gallery ideal for small exhibitions. The lobby provides a striking view of the courtyard and Wyeth Gallery.
Andrew Wyeth, Trodden Weed, tempera on panel, 20 x 181⁄4
The task of renovating the church into the main gallery wasn’t simple. Architects wanted to maintain the old New England appeal of a Shaker meeting house while also making the structure conducive to exhibiting works of art. There was a lot to work with—two floors, arched windows, and pine floors. But limited wall space and high ceilings on the second floor caused problems. Thus, moveable partitions were created to provide more hanging space—the top-floor gallery can now exhibit as many as 70 paintings. The ceiling was dropped several feet to create a more intimate gallery setting, and the windows were covered with blinds to protect the paintings from sunlight.
The ground-floor gallery exhibits N.C.’s paintings of Maine while the second floor houses works by Andrew and Jamie. Because of the sheer volume of the collection there is no way to display all the work simultaneously. So shows will be changed periodically.
The Wyeth center opens June 21 with Wondrous Strange, which examines the marvelous and fantastic elements in the Wyeths’ works—a quality that can be traced back to N.C.’s teacher, magazine and book illustrator Howard Pyle. “There are aspects of the strange and wondrous that take on qualities of tragedy and comedy in all three generations’ work,” says Crossman. “The unreal qualities of dream and illusion are at the heart of the Wyeths’ art.”
About 30 paintings by each Wyeth as well as Pyle have been drawn from public and private collections around the world. “I think the exhibition is going to cause a reassessment, at least in some circles, of who the Wyeths are and what they’ve been doing all along,” Crossman says.
The Farnsworth Museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily during the summer, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday in the winter. For more information call 207.596.6457 or visit the web site at www.wyethcenter.com.
Featured in June 1998