Jamie Wyeth

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Jamie Wyeth
Birth name James Browning Wyeth
Born (1946-07-06) July 6, 1946 (age 67)
Wilmington, Delaware
Nationality American
Field Painting

James Browning Wyeth (born July 6, 1946) is a contemporary American realist painter. He was raised in Chadds Ford Township, Pennsylvania, son of Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N.C. Wyeth. He is artistic heir to the Brandywine School tradition, painters who worked in the rural Brandywine River area of Delaware and Pennsylvania, portraying its people, animals, and landscape.


Early life[edit]

James “Jamie” Wyeth was the second child of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, born three years after brother Nicholas. He was raised on his parents' farm "The Mill" in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in much the same way as his father had been brought up, and with much the same influences. He demonstrated the same remarkable skill in drawing as his father had done at comparable ages. He attended public school for six years and afterwards was privately tutored by his family, concentrating on art. His brother Nicholas, his only sibling, became an art dealer.[1]

Artistic study[edit]

At age 12, Jamie studied with his aunt Carolyn Wyeth, a well-known artist in her own right, and the resident at that time of the N. C. Wyeth House and Studio, filled with the art work and props of his grandfather. In the morning he studied English and history at his home, and in the afternoon joined other students at the studio, learning fundamentals of drawing and composition. He stated later, "She was very restrictive. It wasn’t interesting, but it was important." Through his aunt, Jamie developed an interest in working with oil, a medium he enjoyed at a sensory level: the look, smell and feel of it. Carolyn and Howard Pyle were his greatest early influences in developing his technique in working with oil paint. In working with watercolor, Jamie looked to his father. While Jamie's work in watercolor was similar to his father's, his colors were more vivid.[1]

As a boy Jamie was exposed to art in many ways: the works of his talented family members, art books, attendance at exhibitions, meeting collectors and becoming acquainted with art historians.[1]

For at least three years in the early 1960s, when Wyeth would have been in his middle to late teens, Wyeth painted with his father. Of their close relationship, Wyeth had said: "Quite simply, Andrew Wyeth is my closest friend-and the painter whose work I most admire. The father/son relationship goes out the window when we talk about one another's work. We are completely frank-as we have nothing to gain by being nice."[2] At age 19 [about 1965] he traveled to New York City, to better study the artistic resources of the city and to learn human anatomy by visiting the city morgue.[3]


Tenants Harbor Lighthouse, Maine prior to construction of a new house and reconstruction of the tower

In 1968 Wyeth married Phyllis Mills, daughter of Alice du Pont Mills and James P. Mills[4] and one of his models. Although she had earlier been permanently crippled in a car accident and must use crutches (and later a motorized chair)[4] to get around, Wyeth finds her a very strong, determined woman whose elusive nature means that he continually discovers something new about her. Mills is the subject of many of his paintings (which usually depict her seated) including And Then into the Deep Gorge (1975), Wicker (1979), and Whale (1978), as well as, by implication, his painting of Phyllis’ hat in Wolfbane (1984).[5]

Phyllis worked for John F. Kennedy when he was a senator and president. She served on several boards, including "the National Committee for Arts for the Handicapped, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Resource Defense Council."[6] A steeplechase rider when young, before her crippling accident, she later took over her parents' thoroughbred horse racing and breeding interests.[4]


In the 1960s Jamie purchased the Lobster Cove property on Monhegan island in Maine of Rockwell Kent, famed illustrator of his grandfather’s generation. He's painted many of the local people there. Jamie and his wife have a home at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania on the Brandywine.[7] In the 1990s his parents, Betsy and Andrew Wyeth, sold Jamie Tenants Harbor Light on Southern Island in Maine that they owned since 1978. As it provides him the solitude and subject matter he most enjoys for his work, most of his painting is done at Tenants Harbor, the rest is done at Chadds Ford.[6][8] The light station has been inactive since 1933. The tower that held the lantern was reconstructed for his studio.[9]

Style and technique[edit]

Early on, Wyeth became interested in oil, his grandfather's primary medium, although he is also adept in watercolor and tempera, his father's preferred media. In describing his aunt's way of thickly applying oil to her palette, he stated, "I could eat it. Tempera never looked particularly edible. You have to love a medium to work in it. I love the feel and smell of oil."[1][2]

In addition to studying his aunt's oil technique, he also admired his father’s and grandfather's work, and that of Howard Pyle, his grandfather’s teacher, as well as American masters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. What inspired Wyeth most was not the subject matter or technique of his grandfather, but his "sense of total personal involvement with and intuitive grasp of his subjects". Jamie Wyeth adopted a wider palette of colors than his father’s and closer to his aunt’s and grandfather's.[1]

Wyeth's artistic reach is broader than his father's and grandfather's. He excels in drawing, lithography, etching, egg tempera, watercolor, and mixed media.[2][10] Though grounded in this family’s artist tradition and subjects, and bound by the same solitude of his art, his wider travels and experiences have shaped a more rounded artist. In travels to Europe, he studied the Flemish and Dutch masters, and learned the intricate and exacting process of lithography, producing a substantial amount of graphic work.[10]

On portrait painting, Wyeth stated, "To me, a portrait is not so much the actual painting, but just spending the time with the person, traveling with him, watching him eat, watching him sleep. When I work on a portrait, it's really osmosis. I try to become the person I'm painting. A successful portrait isn't about the sitter's physical characteristics—his nose, eyeballs and whatnot—but more the mood and the overall effect. I try not to impose anything of mine on him. I try to get to the point where if the sitter painted, he'd paint a portrait just the way I'm doing it."[11]

Like his aunt Carolyn, Wyeth enjoys painting animals, such as chickens and dogs. To do so, he pays particular attention to the texture of the animals fur or feathers, the glossiness of its eye, the grass around its feet. To create the desired effects, he used brushstrokes for texture and varnish for sheen.[2]


The beginning[edit]

With advice from his father, always his closest friend but always frank, Wyeth quickly developed his technique and style. In 1963, at the age of 17, he painted Portrait of Shorty, a bravura picture of a local railroad worker. Shorty was a man who lived twenty years in Chadds Ford. The man lived in a humble hut as a hermit, only speaking with a local store owner. The composition of unshaven Shorty against an elegant wing chair is unexpected.[1] Joyce Hill Stoner, art historian and paintings conservator, found it has the "exactitude characteristic of sixteenth-century German oil technique."[2]

Lincoln Kirstein, a family friend of the Wyeth family, was the subject of his first major portrait of a prominent man, titled appropriately, Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein.[3] Kirstein was impressed by the portrait and declared Wyeth the finest American portrait painter since John Singer Sargent. Kerstein's quote made it into the catalog for his first one-man exhibition, at the Knoedler Gallery in New York in 1966.[12] Landscapes and portraits of people from the Chadds Ford area were presented at the exhibit.[6]

"Eyewitness to Space"[edit]

From 1966 to 1971, Wyeth served in the Delaware Air National Guard.[13] Although at one point scheduled for immediate deployment to Vietnam, flights were cancelled for noncombatants. His assignment changed when he was granted top-security clearance[14] and took part in “Eyewitness to Space”, a program jointly sponsored by NASA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington to depict the activities of the Apollo mission through an artists' perspective. A total of 47 artists were involved in the "Eyewitness to Space" program, including Robert Rauschenberg, Lamar Dodd, Norman Rockwell, and Morris Graves. Participants met astronauts at launch sites, such as Cape Kennedy, or rode helicopters to observe the pickup of astronauts. Of the works developed, National Gallery of Arts chose 70 paintings, sculptures or drawings for "The Artist and Space" exhibit that ran from December 1969 to early January, 1970.[15]

Political portraits and works[edit]

  • Draft Age, made in 1965 during the Vietnam War, conveys a proud young man who may be required to serve his country to protect values that he may question. Made in oil, the picture shows mastery of the subject, message and medium beyond his nineteen years.[3]
  • Through his acquaintance with the Kennedy family, he was commissioned to do a posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy. Both Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy posed for Wyeth, and he studied photographs and films of the deceased president for three weeks.[16] He attempted to portray JFK early in his presidency, perhaps in a moment of doubt or indecision over the Bay of Pigs Invasion, with the burden of power weighing on him. Jackie Kennedy thought the portrait accurate but RFK and other family members did not like the less-than-triumphal depiction. The painting did not hang in the White House, and after stays at the French embassy in Paris, France and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, it is now on loan from the artist to The Vice-President's Residence Foundation in Washington DC. Through great public acceptance, it has become one of the most famous images of JFK.[16]
  • In 1984 he painted "Night Vision" to commemorate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This piece depicts a soldier of the Vietnam era as though seen through a Starlight scope or similar night vision device. It was later reproduced as a signed limited edition and sold to benefit the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial colloquially known as "The Wall."[19]

His main body of work[edit]

  • Portrait of Andrew Wyeth (1969) depicts his father with a serious expression. His eyes, something Wyeth focuses on to indicate character, are determined and focused.[3] The ruddy face of his father, and the large buttons of Andrew’s naval coat, with all else in black, suggest Andrew was just arriving home fresh from a brisk walk by the sea.
  • In New York during the 1970s, Wyeth painted Andy Warhol, Rudolf Nureyev[3] and Arnold Schwarzenegger.[20] Wyeth and Andy Warhol did two portraits of each other. In Portrait of Andy Warhol, Warhol seems to be "caught off guard without his personal persona." Nureyev's portrait reflects an intense man. Wyeth was fascinated by Nureyev and found him to have an animal-like presence and strength, that is captured in the portrait.[3]
Monhegan Harbor, Monhegan, Maine 1909
  • Apart from visits to New York, his primary subjects in the 1970s and 1980s were the people, animals, and landscapes of his Pennsylvania home and of Monhegan island in Maine.
  • Wyeth painted some of his most famous animal portraits, Portrait of a Pig (1970),[7] Angus (1974), Islander (1975), and 10W30 (1981).[21] Wyeth knows the animals that he paints and the work grows out of their kinship. When painting animals Wyeth changes the textures of the paint to reflect fur, wool, or feathers.[2]
  • His self-portrait Pumpkinhead—Self-Portrait (1972),[21] depicting a figure in black standing in a field with a pumpkin over his head, is as self-effacing as his father’s self-portrait Trodden Weed, (1951) showing only Andrew’s legs from the knees down.
  • "Kleberg", painted in 1984, captures his love of animals, admiration of family and people he admired and favorite books. Titles of books indicate the close connection to his family, Treasure Island, illustrated by his grandfather, N. C. Wyeth, "Christina's World" made by his father, and "The Stray," written by his mother, Betsy Wyeth and illustrated by Wyeth. Other individuals who earned his respect are represented: Howard Pyle in Pyle's Book of Pirates, Lincoln Kirstein's Lay This Laurel, and a biography of John F. Kennedy. Favored books include the children's book Wind in the Willows, The Magus by John Fowles, and The Wanderer by Alain-Fournier.[2]
  • Much of his output since 1990 comes from Tenants Harbor. Wyeth’s fascination with island life is revealed in its more disturbing form in If Once You Have Slept on an Island (1996) which depicts a young woman sitting on a tousled bed who appears sad and exhausted from wild dreams. The title was derived from a poem by Rachel Field with the opening lines:[2]
"If once you have slept on an island,
You'll never be quite the same."
  • In 2002, Wyeth followed up with another humorous self-portrait Pumpkinhead Visits the Lighthouse.

Other efforts[edit]

Other noteworthy commissions in addition to his portrait of JFK have been the design of a 1971 eight-cent Christmas stamp, the official White House Christmas cards for 1981 and 1984, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver portrait for use on the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games Commemorative coin. He also lent his support to lighthouse preservation efforts in Maine in 1995 with his exhibition, "Island Light".

Wyeth has illustrated two children's books, The Stray (1979), written by his mother Betsy James Wyeth, and Cabbages and Kings (1997), written by Elizabeth Seabrook.[2]

Critical reaction[edit]

When Wyeth had his first exhibition in New York in 1965 he received a scathing review by the New York Times. His work was compared to that of his fathers', neither of whom were considered contenders in the commercial business of modern art.[22] Jamie Wyeth’s critics level some of the same charges as they do against his father—to some, both artists seem anachronistic, too close to illustration, and out of touch with the 20th century evolution of Post-Picasso modernism. He answers, "We're charged, my father and I, with being a pack of illustrators. I've always taken it as a supreme compliment. What's wrong with illustration? There's this thing now that illustrations are sort of secondary to art and I think it's a bunch of crap."[23]

Per Brandywine River Museum, "James Wyeth had earned national attention with a posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy and other work. Later, he produced striking portraits of Rudolf Nureyev and Andy Warhol, studies for which are in the museum's collection. Since then, Wyeth has established a distinctive style, characterized by strong images and sharp contrasts in his landscapes and portraits. He is known for his monumental animal portraits, including Portrait of Pig and Raven in the museum's collection, which represents various stages in his changing style."[24]

In "Jamie Wyeth: Proteus in Paint" Joyce Hill Stoner said of Wyeth: Jamie Wyeth lives on his own terms with a healthy respect for his heritage and a unique ability to translate acute observations into a spectrum of visual experiences in an impressive range of styles from the laser-like intensity of "Portrait of Shorty" to the archetypal but ironic encrusted image of an animal friend in "Portrait of Pig" to the eerie painterly dreamscape of "Comet".[2]

Ann Morgan, author of "Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Arts" describes his style as one that follows the realistic style of his father, Andrew Wyeth, while into "more psychologically fraught territory."[7] When making portraits, Wyeth sees into the nature of an individual and portrays them with such detail and realism that the shocked subjects "often hid them up in their closets."[25]


  • In March 1987, Wyeth traveled to Leningrad to attend the opening of An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art, a major exhibition of 117 works whose rural subjects proved very popular with the Russian people. This followed a visit in summer of 1975 when Wyeth was invited to the Soviet Union to tour the country’s art museums, and he took the opportunity to meet with dissident artists.
Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania
  • Wyeth's work became more widely known after being shown alongside his father's and grandfather's art at an exhibition in 1971 at the newly opened Brandywine River Museum at Chadds Ford, the foremost repository for all the Brandywine artists. A highlight of the show was Wyeth’s Portrait of Pig, a seven by five feet painting befitting its subject’s size and status.[24]
  • In the last two decades, Jamie Wyeth has been presented at over two dozen exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad.
  • Wyeth's works are presented at Mary Louise Cowan Gallery in Maine, exhibits have included: "The Maine Influence: Selected Works by James Wyeth", "Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer" and others.[6]

Museums and awards[edit]

Jamie Wyeth’s works are in the collections of the Brandywine River Museum,[24] the Farnsworth Art Museum,[6] the Terra Museum of American Art,[28] the National Gallery of Art,[29] the National Portrait Gallery and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In 1972 Wyeth was appointed a council member of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1975 he became a member of the board of governors of the National Space Institute. He is a member of the National Academy of Design and the American Watercolor Society. He holds many honorary degrees including from Elizabethtown College (1975), Dickinson School of Law (1983) and Pine Manor College (1987).


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Duff, J (1987). An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art. Boston: Little Brown & Company. p. 57. ISBN 0-8212-1652-X. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hill Stoner, Dr. J (2010). "Jamie Wyeth: Proteus in Paint". Articles and Essays on American Art. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Duff, An American Vision, p. 60
  4. ^ a b c Tim Layden (May 4, 2012). "The story behind Union Rags and two people's shot at Derby glory". Sports Illustrated. 
  5. ^ Duff, An American Vision, p. 64
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Jamie Wyeth". Wyeth Center. Farnsworth Art Museum. Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  7. ^ a b c Morgan, A. L. (2007). The Oxford dictionary of American art and artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 532. ISBN 978-0-19-512878-9. 
  8. ^ Dos Santos, S; Louie, E (2000). Living in New England. p. 71. 
  9. ^ Russ Rowlett (2011). "Tenants Habor Light". Lighthouses of the U.S.: Southern Maine. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 2011-04-21. 
  10. ^ a b Duff, An American Vision, p. 160
  11. ^ Sandra Carpenter and Greg Schaber, "Jamie Wyeth: His Art and Insights," The Artists Magazine 14, 8 (August 1997), p. 38.
  12. ^ Kavanagh, J (2008). Nureyev: The Life. New York and Toronto: Vintage Books. pp. 503–504. ISBN 978-0-375-70472-7. 
  13. ^ "Biography of Jamie Wyeth". jamiewyeth.com. Retrieved 21 August 2011. 
  14. ^ Duff, "An American Vision" p.157
  15. ^ "The Artist and Space". Past Exhibitions. National Gallery of Art. 2011. Retrieved 2011. 
  16. ^ a b Duff, ’’An American Vision’’, pp. 60, 157, 166
  17. ^ Genovese, A (1999). The Watergate Crisis. Westport: Greenwood Press. p. 42, xvii. ISBN 978-0-446-57124-1. 
  18. ^ Warhol, A (1989). Hackett, P, ed. The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Grand Central Publishing. p. Monday, December 20, 1976. ISBN 978-0-446-57124-1. 
  19. ^ "Wyeth Tribute to Vietnam Veterans on View at the Brandywine River Museum, March 2003". Press Releases. Brandywine River Museum. Retrieved 2011-04-22. 
  20. ^ Warhol, "Diaries of Warhol" Monday, March 7, 1977
  21. ^ a b Duff, An American Vision, pp. 204-205
  22. ^ Grant, D (2010). The Business of Being an Artist. New York: Allworth Press. p. 294. 
  23. ^ David Kinney, The Grandson Also Rises The Wilmington News Journal (6 February 1998), D2.
  24. ^ a b c "Collections". Brandywine River Museum. Brandywine Conservancy. 2011. Retrieved 2011-04-22. 
  25. ^ Hackett, "The Andy Warhol Diaries" p. 397
  26. ^ Adelson, Warren (2008). Jamie Wyeth: Seven Deadly Sins. New York: Adelson Galleries. ISBN 0-9741621-9-1. 
  27. ^ "Brandywine River Museum". Brandywine Conservancy. 2011. Retrieved 2011-04-22. 
  28. ^ "Collection Search". Collection. Terra Foundation. 2011. Retrieved 2011-04-22. 
  29. ^ "James Browning Wyeth". Artists. National Gallery of Art. 2011. Retrieved 2011-04-21. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]