In 2010, when Jamie Wyeth heard that the Shelburne Museum in Vermont was planning an exhibition around the predilection for unusual vantage points displayed by three generations of Wyeths in their art, he was inspired to paint Spindrift, an aerial depiction of his island home off the coast of Maine. The show grew out of a conversation that took place a decade ago between Andrew and Betsy Wyeth and the Wyeth family’s main conservator, Joyce Hill Stoner, about doing an exhibition on “aerial viewpoints,” Stoner says. “So when the Shelburne asked me to curate a show—and they have the marvelous Soaring—it all came together.”
The result is “Wyeth Vertigo,” up until October 31 and comprising nearly 40 works by Andrew, his son Jamie, and Andrew’s father, N. C. Wyeth, that document what Shelburne director Thomas Denenberg calls their “penchant for extreme perspectives —looking up, down, in, and out of unusual spaces.” The show’s centerpiece is Andrew’s Soaring (1942–50), a tempera-on-Masonite painting of a life-size turkey buzzard with a 5-foot wingspan circling above two other buzzards and rolling Pennsylvania farmland far below. “It is meticulous, ominous, and a startling document of Cold War–visual culture,” says Denenberg.
Other highlights by Andrew include Winter Fields (1942), a worm’s-eye vignette of a dead crow in a field, and Wolf Moon (1975), an aerial survey of the artist’s famous farmhouse in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Wyeth patriarch N. C., who launched the family tradition of unusual vantage points and strong angles, is represented here by numerous bird’s-eye views, notably Lobsterman Hauling Trap (1927) and Dark Harbor Fishermen (1943), depicting Maine fishermen at work. Jamie, who paints more like his grandfather than his father, utilizes both sky-high and ground-level perspectives. In addition to Spindrift, the show includes his elevated viewpoints in The Islander (1975) and Gull in Flight, Shrieking (2006/ 2009), and his upward-tilting Comet (1997).
Stoner, who has studied the Wyeths for years, was surprised that “the more we looked, the more we kept turning up so many additional examples of vertiginous views.” The pieces “create a sense of unease,” adds Denenberg, which, “at times, can be quite dizzying.”