In 1930, the Wyeth family started spending summers in Port Clyde, Maine, where painter and illustrator N. C. Wyeth, father of the artist, purchased a home and christened it “Eight Bells,” in honor of Winslow Homer’s painting of the same name (1886, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover,...
In 1930, the Wyeth family started spending summers in Port Clyde, Maine, where painter and illustrator N. C. Wyeth, father of the artist, purchased a home and christened it “Eight Bells,” in honor of Winslow Homer’s painting of the same name (1886, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts). As a young man, Andrew Wyeth enjoyed exploring the area, intimately familiarizing himself with the region’s land and people. It was on just such an expedition in 1939 that he met Betsy James. She became his wife, business manager, and frequent model. Sandspit shows Betsy seated on a sand bank at Cutler Cove, a small inlet on the St. George River. The site is a short distance from Port Clyde and directly across the water from Cushing, where Betsy grew up. In this portrayal, Betsy turns her head away, looking off towards the sharply outlined pine trees, her head silhouetted against a bright, pale sky. The empty flatness of that sky stands in bold contrast to the complexly textured foreground of the shell-littered sandbank. In this lower half of the canvas, Wyeth created a surface as riotous, expressive, and free as those of the Abstract Expressionist artists [link to ch. 11]. First he layered smooth washes of color in zones of varying earth tones, which he covered with tiny soft dabs of related tans, grays, and whites. He then repeatedly dragged a fine point, most likely the tip of his brush handle, through the paint to create a mottled texture. Scratches and small divots are visible across the entire surface, with the whitish ground revealed in a number of areas. The scraped lines have a furious kinetic quality suggesting rapid and sweeping gestural motions. The result is an unusual finish that mimics the gritty appearance of sand without incorporating actual sand. Wyeth produced this effect almost in defiance of his materials. Egg tempera, in which ground pigment is suspended in egg yolk or white, is a fastidious material that dries quickly and smoothly with almost no thickness or impasto. This ancient technique was the preferred medium for European painters until the popularization of oil-based paints in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; egg tempera fell almost entirely out of favor until it underwent something of a revival in the twentieth century, particularly among American realist painters such as Paul Cadmus [2010.753]. Wyeth learned the technique from his brother-in-law, painter Peter Hurd [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Peter%20Hurd], who had been a student of N. C. Wyeth and who married Andrew’s older sister, Henriette. In Sandspit, Wyeth seems to be exploring the possibilities of tempera, with effects that range from the granular abrasion of the sand to the luminous glow of the thinned washes in the sky. In Betsy’s figure he used fine hatching (small parallel or crossed lines) and stippling (delicate dots or dabs of color) to create volume and form. Egg tempera favors precise control over line, a trait that Wyeth uses to advantage in his rendering of the mass of trees seen beyond Betsy. In contrast, the looseness of the sand, which appears almost as if made through a kind of free association or Surrealist automatic drawing, seems the opposite of the tight brushwork visible in the figure and the trees. Unfortunately, this experimentation came at a cost. Tempera can be extremely durable, as evidenced by the survival of fifteenth-century paintings that remain bright and fresh, but it is also a demanding and unforgiving media. Wyeth’s adventurous handling and thick layering occasionally pushed tempera beyond its limits, resulting in a fragile paint surface. While the artist was philosophical about the results of time and welcomed some of the changes that occurred to his paintings as natural and inevitable, he recognized nonetheless that something had to be done to preserve his work. Wyeth worked directly with a conservator to determine methods to stabilize the surface of his canvases while remaining true to his original intentions. Sandspit has benefited from this specialized attention. Cody Hartley
Lower right: Andrew Wyeth; Reverse: Sandspit
1953, the artist. Mrs. Lillian Oakley (Mrs. Marcus) Beebe; 1973, bequest of Lillian Oakley Beebe to the MFA. (Accession Date: May 9, 1973)
Bequest of Lillian Oakley Beebe
© Andrew Wyeth