Wyeth’s Black Models

For six decades, Andrew Wyeth has been making portraits of his African American friends and neighbors. Now the series is touring for the first time—but only in the South .

In 1999 Andrew Wyeth painted a nude portrait of a handsome, lithe black woman named Senna Moore. When he discovered that he had already done a watercolor of the model on the reverse side of the paper, he decided to call the new image BODY… (recto) and the older one … AND SOUL (verso) . On seeing the works, Betsy James Wyeth, wife of the 82-year-old painter, was immediately inspired to pull from their collection 30 paintings and drawings that her husband had made over the years of their African American friends and neighbors in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. She had them installed in the Brandywine River Museum, which houses works by three generations of Wyeths, along with other American and regional artists.

After painting local tycoon H. F. Dupont in the morning, Wyeth walked over to Ben Loper’s house to have his friend pose.
Newton Belt

“I’d go over to paint H. F. Dupont in the morning. I’d have to be let into Winterthur [the Dupont mansion, now a museum] by guards, and be ‘received.’ Then, in the afternoon, I’d walk over to Ben Loper’s house in the community,” recalls Wyeth, “and would be so much more relaxed, so much more natural.” The Loper portrait, A Crow Flew By—the words uttered by the subject as Wyeth painted him in 1950—is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and numbers among the 74 paintings, watercolors, and drawings in the traveling exhibition “Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends,” which debuted at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, where it can be seen through the 13th of this month.

It is the first public overview of the artist’s depictions of the people and sites in a small African American community in Chadd’s Ford, which had been known as “Little Africa” and originated as a Quaker stop on the Underground Railroad. As a child, Wyeth played with the descendants of those men and women who settled in the region, and throughout his adult life, he painted them. His sensuous depictions of Moore, who began posing for him in 1997, bring to mind the nude images of the blonde Helga Testorf, a German neighbor Wyeth secretly painted between 1971 and 1985. “I’m involved with the people I paint,” he says. “They become my friends.”

The show grew out of a visit to the Brandywine museum by Kim Sessums, a physician, sculptor, and collector from Brookhaven, Mississippi. In 1996 Sessums had made a portrait bust of Wyeth, and he sent a picture to the artist for approval. Wyeth responded by inviting him to come to Chadd’s Ford and “get it right.” In the end, the painter was pleased with the sculpture, and Sessums, inspired by their many conversations, wrote an essay on Wyeth’s African American pictures, exploring the relationship between the painter and the painted. “Betsy Wyeth was astonished at how uncannily the essay coincided with their small exhibition,” says Sessums, “and invited me to see it.”

Sessums approached R. Andrew Maass, director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, with the idea of organizing a more complete exhibition, bringing in works from major institutions and private collections. “Without a doubt, we wanted that show,” says Maass. “There is no way the museum could let such an opportunity pass by.” The Wyeths were pleased by the proposal but stipulated that the exhibition must travel to areas in the Deep South with large African American populations. After its Jackson run, the show will be on view at the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, South Carolina (from June 6 through August 26), and the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia (from September 15 through December 31). “We’ve had requests from museums in New York, Washington State, Illinois, all over the country,” says René Paul Barilleaux, the chief curator of the Mississippi Museum and co-organizer—with the Wyeths and Mary Landa, their curator—of the exhibition. “But the Wyeths wanted the show to stay in the South.”

At the time Wyeth was making many of the paintings, Mississippi’s officially segregationist society would not have permitted them to be exhibited in the state’s art museum. But since passage of the civil-rights laws in the 1960s, race relations in Mississippi have slowly improved. Thirty years after civil-rights leader Medgar Evers was slain, his murderer was finally convicted, and as the Wyeth show opened, the Mississippi attorney general was working on a new murder trial for the 12 men accused of killing civil-rights workers Andrew Schwerner, Michael Goodman, and James Chaney outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. And today museum audiences are often racially diverse. “Art reflects what’s happening in the society, and museums can be agents of social change,” says Maass. “The concerns today are not those of the ’60s or ’70s, when whites would object to the show—or even that blacks would object to a white, male painter being the presenter of black images.” Instead, Maass has been worried, he says, about reaction to the nude portraits, which Wyeth began to paint in the 1930s, with a woman named Evelyn Smith as his model. “The black community here takes a proprietary interest in protecting black women from their historic abuse by white men,” he explains.

The last gallery in the Mississippi show is devoted to Wyeth’s images of Senna Moore. In one, she stands naked, nymphlike in a hollow tree; in another, she is sensually wrapped in a sheer black caftan. In And Bells on Her Toes (1997), she looks like a Nubian queen, with her hair braided and bejeweled, and in The Privy (1995), Wyeth shows her as a country girl darting nude from an outhouse toward a building nearly hidden by a large haystack that recalls the grassy foreground of his famous Christina’s World. Her nipples are bright red, the only spot of color in the work.

“I have no problem with these images having been painted by a white man. It is good for us to have that,” says James Powell, director of the Museum of African American and African Art in Jackson. “Maybe it will encourage others to create and exhibit African American art. I saw style, sophistication, exquisite beauty, and craftsmanship.”

Gwendolyn Magee, an African American fiber artist from Jackson, admits that before she saw the show, she had concerns about “the extent to which Wyeth may have exploited these people.” But, she says, “I found his work showed such respect for his subjects, and explored their personality and character. The way, for example, he painted Mother Archie’s church, from a variety of angles, at different times of the year, over a period of years.” The “Little Africa” community was situated around the church, an octagonal building that was formerly a Quaker schoolhouse. When he was only 16, Wyeth painted Burial at Archies, a haunting graveside scene in the stony, snow-covered churchyard. “Wyeth’s paintings’ subdued palette and meticulous realism are warmed by an intimacy with the subjects that is revealing and rewarding,” writes local art critic Sherry Lucas in the Clarion Ledger, a Jackson daily.

For the show, Wyeth provides a short biography of his cast of characters, many of whom are no longer living. And Betsy James Wyeth writes in her introduction in the accompanying catalogue (jointly published by the Mississippi Museum of Art and the University of Washington Press) of the “everlasting warmth and affection” the Wyeths feel for them. The book’s text consists of brief captions in which Andrew Wyeth comments on the subject, circumsta
nce, and experience of creating the images. “They were easy friendships,” he says of his relationships with his models. “They posed whenever I asked them to. How pure it seemed, to be able to paint where they lived. It was not studio painting.” In Chester County(1962), for instance, Tom Clark, an elderly black man, is shown upstairs in his bedroom. Bald with a white stubble beard and strikingly high cheekbones, he is depicted in profile, seated in a wooden armchair beside a quilt-covered bed. “What struck me,” writes Andrew in the book, “was that faded blue wall and the way the stovepipe became almost a crown.”

Recently, the Wyeths laid out and examined more than 50 watercolor and pencil drawings of the late Tom Clark. “He welcomed me so easily. I painted him in every angle—seated, lying down, bending over. I lived with him for almost a month,” Wyeth says. “He would cook for me.” The artist gave a study he did for That Gentleman(1960), which also features Clark, to the actor Morgan Freeman, who was so moved by the “Little Africa” images that he volunteered to narrate the show’s accompanying audio guide without pay.

The modeling fees Wyeth’s subjects earned were no doubt particularly appreciated during the hard days of the Depression. The artist also gave each of them one or more working drawings of their portraits. “I’m just sorry,” he says, “that they didn’t live to see the book.”

Mary Lynn Kotz is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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