Born in 1917 in Pennsylvania, Andrew Wyeth hailed from an artistic family. His father was the artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth and his sister and son were also artists. A painter of the realism school, Wyeth became one of America’s most successful artists. He lived in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania where he was born and spent summers in Maine painting scenes and people from both localities. He is best known for paintings like Christina’s World and the infamous Helga series that shocked the art world late in his career.
Instructed in art by his father, Wyeth sold out his first one-man exhibition in 1937 in New York City. His spare color palette and sparse style became synonymous with his choice of subject matter—landscapes and rural settings. He typically painted the people who lived nearby, often his own neighbors. His most famous painting, Christina’s World (1948), depicts his neighbor Christina Olson sprawled on a field before her house. Charged with emotional depth, this picture was done after his father’s and nephew’s deaths; N.C. Wyeth’s car stalled on train tracks and was struck by a train in 1945.
Despite the stark realism of his work, Wyeth has sometimes been criticized for being sentimental in his depiction of rural scenes. Yet, Wyeth repeatedly sold his work successfully even though the mood in American art was concerned with modernism. Later in his career, in 1985, Wyeth stunned the art world by revealing a secret and substantially large collection of art—a single study of the subject Helga. No one but the model and the artist knew about these paintings and sketches from 1970 to 1985—not even Wyeth’s wife and business manager Betsy Wyeth.
The Helga series is unique in American art as it depicts the same study in a myriad of settings and poses showcasing the subtle qualities of her physicality. Helga Testorf was thirty-five when she began modeling for Wyeth and lived nearby. The work was also unknown to her husband. The controversy surrounding these works, many of them nudes, excited and continue to excite the art world. The collection, more than 240, was sold to a single buyer in order to preserve the group’s entirety. They have been shown together at various exhibits around the country.
Most major museums show works by Wyeth who died at the age of ninety-one early in 2009. Although he regularly received criticism from the upper echelons of the art world, he was one of America’s most popular and successful artists. He was essentially loved by mainstream America for his realistic works that markedly contrasted from more modernist works of the century. A painting like The Master Bedroom illustrates what fans love about Wyeth and what critics hate; the painting shows a dog lying atop a bed asleep—sentimental to some, but characteristically Wyeth and wonderful to others.