Andrew Newell Wyeth (July 12, 1917 – January 16, 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, and was sometimes referred to as the "Painter of the People," due to his work's popularity with the American public.
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.
One of the most well-known images in 20th-century American art is his painting, Christina's World, currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
It was at the Olson farm in Cushing, Maine that he painted Christina's World (1948). Perhaps his most famous image, it depicts his neighbor, Christina Olson, sprawled on a dry field facing her house in the distance. Wyeth was quite inspired by his neighbor, who, because of an unknown illness resulting in her inability to walk, spent much time on the property surrounding her house.
Also in 1948, he began painting Anna and Karl Kuerner, his neighbours in Chadds Ford. Like the Olsons, the Kuerners and their farm were one of Wyeth's most important subjects for nearly 30 years. Wyeth stated about the Kuerner Farm, “I didn’t think it a picturesque place. It just excited me, purely abstractly and purely emotionally.”
Dividing his time between Pennsylvania and Maine, Wyeth maintained a realist painting style for over fifty years. He gravitated to several identifiable landscape subjects and models. In 1958, Andrew and Betsy Wyeth purchased and restored "The Mill," a group of 18th-century buildings that appeared often in his work, including Night Sleeper (1979). His solitary walks were the primary means of inspiration for his landscapes.
He developed an extraordinary intimacy with the land and sea and strove for a spiritual understanding based on history and unspoken emotion. He typically created dozens of studies on a subject in pencil or loosely brushed watercolor before executing a finished painting, either in watercolor, drybrush (a watercolor style in which the water is squeezed from the brush), or egg tempera.
When Christina Olsen died in the winter of 1969, Wyeth refocused his artistic attention upon Siri Erickson, capturing her naked innocence in Indian Summer (1970). It was a prelude to the Helga paintings.
The Helga Pictures
In 1986, extensive coverage was given to the revelation of a series of 247 studies of Wyeth's neighbour, the Prussian-born Helga Testorf. Wyeth painted her over the period 1971–85 without the knowledge of either Wyeth's wife or John Testorf, Helga's husband.
Helga is a musician, baker, caregiver, and friend of the Wyeths. She met Wyeth when she was attending to Karl Kuerner. She had never modeled before, but quickly became comfortable with the long periods of posing, during which he observed and painted her in intimate detail.
The Helga pictures are not an obvious psychological study of the subject, but more an extensive study of her physical landscape set within Wyeth's customary landscapes. She is nearly always unsmiling and passive; yet, within those deliberate limitations, Wyeth manages to convey subtle qualities of character and mood, as he does in many of his best portraits. This extensive study of one subject studied in differing contexts and emotional states is unique in American art.
The works were exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in 1987 and in a coast-to-coast tour.
The Helga works were briefly owned by a private Japanese industrialist, who had agreed to allow additional exhibitions. Since then the collection has returned to the U.S. and has been split up in sales, contrary to the original intentions of many to keep the collection together. Pieces are now in many public and private collections. In March 2002, Wyeth painted Gone, his last Helga picture. It joined the collection on recent tours between 2002–06.