‘Helga’ painter Andrew Wyett dies at 91

A few days ago, January 16, painter Andrew Wyeth died in his sleep in his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, at age 91. He was surrounded by his family, and died after a short period of illness. He has been painting until recently.

Wyeth has become one of America’s most famous painters thanks to his idyllic way of paintings his surroundings: the landscapes, farms, tree lands, farm houses, and neighbors in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

What strikes me most about the news of Andrew Wyeth is the way he died. It had the same idyllic poetry with which he painted. Who would not like to die of old age, without too much pain, sleeping, surrounded by loved ones?

Art is life and life is art – at least for Andrew Wyeth it was.

To commemorate the American realist painter, I would like to mention 5 highlights of Andrew Wyeth’s art career:

1. While the rest of the art world explored ‘Abstract Expressionism‘, Wyett did his own thing, i.e. realism. Specifically, he painted his world his way. And he became most famous for it. Some art critiques call him ‘an icon of Americana’. Well, actually Wyeth did represent post-war America’s nostalgic yearning for a return to what had been normalcy. Does that make him less of an artist? He was no more or no less a sign of his time than self-managed contemporary British artist Damien Hirst, or was he?

2. Wyeth received many awards during his lifetime including some prestigious ones, such as: being the first artist to receive President Kennedy’s “Presidential Freedom Award” America’s highest civil award (’63). Also, Andrew Wyeth had been the first living artist to have had an exhibition at the White House (’70). He was the recipient of the National Institute for Art & Letters’ Gold metal for Painting (’65). And when the Helga pictures came out, he had been one of the few single artists to have been hailed as a creator of ‘a national treasure’ and to receive a coast-to-coast solo exhibition tour from the National Gallery of Art.

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Christina’s World
Andrew Wyeth

3. His painting of a young woman in a field, ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) became one of the best known paintings in America. It is his single most famous artwork. The painting is one of the most popular works on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

‘Christina’s World’ is made in tempera. Wyeth started his art career in watercolors and dry brush, and then moved to egg tempera, which became ‘his’ medium. The tempura allowed him to achieve his superb textural effects.

The story behind ‘Christina’s World’, as MoMA explains it, is this:

“The woman crawling through the tawny grass was the artist’s neighbor in Maine, who, crippled by polio, “was limited physically but by no means spiritually.”

Wyeth further explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” He recorded the arid landscape, rural house, and shacks with great detail, painting minute blades of grass, individual strands of hair, and nuances of light and shadow.

In this style of painting, known as magic realism, everyday scenes are imbued with poetic mystery.”

the helga pictures andrew wyeth

4. Andrew Wyeth managed to surprise the public once again in ’86 with ‘The Helga Pictures’ ~ a large collection of paintings featuring a single subject, i.e. a neighbor by the name of Helga Testorf. The collection of 240+ individual works went beyond tempura and includes dry brush paintings, watercolors and pencil studies. It had been created over a span of fifteen years (’71-’85). Andrew Wyeth created these artworks without telling a single person, including his wife, for over a decade.

The entire collection was said to be sold for $40 million in ’86 to publisher Leonard E. B. Andrews, complete with copyright to the artwork and all. Leonard Andrews agreed to keep the collection together and offer public access. Washington’s National Gallery of Art organized a tour from America’s coast-to-coast during ’87-’89. 10 months after the tour, 200 or so of The Helga Pictures were sold for $50 million to an unidentified Japanese industrialist, who has continued public access to the works through exhibitions.

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I’m not getting into the scandals and speculations about The Helga Pictures. Truth is, they are skillful executions and it’s unique for a single subject to be painted over and over again during decades. I’m not sure if prolific artist Picasso matches the number of paintings of ‘Dora Maar’, but knowing Picasso, he would not like to be compared.

Where to see Andrew Wyeth

Brandywine museum, Chadds Ford, PA
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

© copyright 2009 A. Lee, eArtfair.com – all rights reserved.


  1. Nobody ever mentions how much Andrew loved to watch the skiers at Chadds Peak, and wished that he could fly down the slopes with them.

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