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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Wyeth Smackdown

A few years back, I visited the Wyeth Museum in Chadds Ford, PA. The Wyeths are a tremendously talented family with a museum devoted to 3 generations of painters: N.C., Andrew and Jamie, with a portion of the museum devoted to each.

N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie, is best known for his illustrations that appeared in such adventure books as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, among others. He also pursued fine art, but felt frustrated and condemned himself as being only an illustrator.

N.C.'s fine art work is beautiful, but I thought, yeah, you're right, you are an illustrator. What is it about the work that was beautiful but ultimately unsatisfying? Why was Andrew's work so firmly in the artist's camp? I didn't know at that moment, but when I later spoke with my wife, who has a degree in Art History she explained it to me - "An illustrator tells you everything, an artist does not, he or she requires something from the viewer".

I'll use two paintings by Monet to illustrate this. Late in his career, Claude Monet set up a studio in a storefront, near the cathedral in Rouen. He painted a series of canvases from the same vantage point, but the topic was not the cathedral, it was about the light that fell on the cathedral and the myriad moods that stemmed from it; early in the morning, late in the day, cloudy, misty, etc. He had done a similar exercise using haystacks as the medium for describing the light. From the Cathedral series, two of these paintings ended up in the collection at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. I've included them below.

Three things to keep in mind:

1. Monet's eyesight was failing when he made these paintings.

2. They're pretty big. They measure a little more than 3' tall.

3. The impressionistic technique is such that if you stand close to the canvas, the cathedral dissolves into a swirl of colors, all the details become incomprehensible.

Monet necessarily had to stand close to the canvas to create the work, but the composition is not readily understandable from such a vantage point. But those blobs of pinks and blues make sense from a distance, not just as a depiction of a cathedral but an achingly moving description of the light that fell on it that day.

If you've ever shown a photograph of a fire hydrant to a dog, the response is a blank stare. If you show a Monet to a dog, I suspect the response would be the same. The human brain is an integral part of these paintings. It can take wild daubs of color and translate them into a pictoral description of a moment in time that can be shared between the painter and the viewer. The mind can see tympana, spires and niches that vanish upon closer inspection. The human mind has to provide something. Different styles of art make different demands on the viewer; but art requires something from the viewer where illustration does not.

In an earlier post, I had quoted from 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School that suggested that engineers design 'things' and architects design the interface between humans and 'things'. It is the same with all art; it acts as an intermediary, transferring meaning from human artist to human viewer.

Orson Welles made a similar obsevation, as noted on The Writer's Almanac, when he said:

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”

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