A painter of landscape and figure subjects in Pennsylvania and Maine, Andrew Wyeth became one of the best-known American painters of the 20th century. His style is both realistic and abstract, and he works primarily in tempera and watercolor, often using the drybrush technique. His art instruction came from his famous-illustrator father, who preached the tying of painting to life to mood and to essences and to capturing the subtleties of changing light and shadows.
Andrew Wyeth maintained a style strongly oriented towards Realism when Abstract Expressionism was all-prevalent. Adhering to his own path, he was snubbed by many prominent art critics. However, his paintings have elements of abstraction in that the work derives from his strong feelings about his subjects, which often appear in unusual positions, juxtapositions, and with features highlighted for emotional effect. His work usually suggests rural quiet, isolation, and somber mood and is devoid of modern-day objects such as automobiles.
In 1937, Wyeth's first one-man show of watercolors depicting scenes around Port Clyde, Maine. In Maine, Andrew first spent his summers in Port Clyde with his family, but after his marriage to Betsy James in 1940, he and his wife went regularly to Cushing. Christina Olson, of Rockland was his most famous model. The Olson House, where Christina and her brother lived, is now owned and maintained by the Farnsworth Museum, where Wyeth had his first major exhibition in 1951 and where the Andrew Wyeth Gallery is now a permanent exhibition place for his paintings.
In 1964, the directors of the Farnsworth Museum paid $65,000 for Wyeth's painting "Her Room," the highest price ever paid by a museum for the work of a living artist. The Olson House is the first property ever named to the National Register of Historic Places for being recognized as the site of a painting, "Christina's World," one of the most recognized paintings in American art. After the death of Christina Olson, Wyeth used female models Siri Olson of Cushing and Helga Testorf of Chadds Ford.
Depictions of the nude Helga, a total of 240 works, provided grist for an avalanche of sensational publicity. The Helga paintings were exhibited in 1987 at the National Gallery of Art, the gallery's first exhibition of works by a living artist. Wyeth has received many official honors. In 1963, he was the subject of a cover story for "Time" magazine and, thanks to President John F. Kennedy, he became the first visual artist to be nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1990, Wyeth received the Congressional Gold Medal, the first artist to have that honor.