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Wyeth, "Adam"

In art as in lit­er­a­ture, ugli­ness ren­dered with com­pas­sion is beauty.”
—W. Joe Innis

This may be the 20th cen­tury paint­ing I most admire. It’s “Adam,” an egg tem­pera paint­ing by Andrew Wyeth. It depicts Adam John­son, a poor farmer and a neigh­bor and friend of Wyeth’s. It was painted in 1963, the year I was born.

I think this is a great paint­ing because it projects a sense of com­pas­sion. You feel Adam’s hard life, and you feel a sense of con­nect­ed­ness to him. He’s a real per­son, a human being with his own life, his own human­ity, his own tragedy. You don’t know his story (although you can imag­ine a small part of it from the con­text), but there is a strong sense that there is one. Few paint­ings, even by great artists, man­age this.

When I used this as an exam­ple of a great paint­ing on an inter­net art forum awhile back, one poster didn’t get it. He said that the use of a poor black man in a paint­ing was just another banal stereo­type. The paint­ing was kitsch, not art. I dis­agree. Wyeth knew this man. He wasn’t paint­ing some sym­bol of under­class rural life, he was paint­ing Adam John­son, his friend.

I also think the com­po­si­tion is bril­liant. The for­mat is very wide, with Adam pre­sented in three-quarter front view just slightly off­set from cen­ter. The mid­dle ground objects, and the back­ground hills, curve down­ward to the right behind Adam, cre­at­ing a sense of dynamic move­ment jux­ta­posed against the sta­sis of the obese Adam stand­ing stolidly in the fore­ground with his eyes res­olutely shut. The eye is stopped at the right by the fence post and at the left by the han­dles of the tools lean­ing against the wall, keep­ing us within the scene (it’s not easy to do that in such a wide-format paint­ing). The sense of move­ment in the back­ground is enhanced by the flock of birds in flight, an effect that would seem exces­sively melo­dra­matic, but in the con­text of such a grounded pic­ture it gives a sense of strange­ness that speaks to another level of real­ity within world cre­ated by the painting.

It’s not a pretty pic­ture, but it’s a deeply humane one.

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5 Responses

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  1. jeff freedner says

    Of course you know Andrew Wyeth is very unpop­u­lar in some art cir­cles. Hence the reac­tion when you used as an exam­ple on a forum.
    Per­son­ally I like Wyeth, his water­col­ors are amaz­ing and his draw­ings are as well.

    The tempera’s I like some more than oth­ers. He is a very orig­i­nal artist, and that alone says some­thing giv­ing whom his father was.

    The thing that I love about him is how he finds all these dif­fer­ent ways to solve com­po­si­tion prob­lems and how each medium he uses defines how he makes his decisions.

  2. David says

    Wyeth’s work cer­tainly flies in the face of most mod­ern estab­lish­ment art. Actu­ally, mostly it just doesn’t care about mod­ern estab­lish­ment art, which prob­a­bly annoys mod­ern estab­lish­ment art crit­ics quite a bit.

    I agree that his sense of com­po­si­tion is much more sophis­ti­cated than it might at first appear.

  3. deborah says

    where is Adam located today? what museum today is Adam located

  4. David says


    I’m not sure. You could check with the Brandy­wine River Museum in Penn­syl­va­nia. They have a pretty good col­lec­tion of Wyeths.

  5. Paul Baswell says

    as a young man i mar­veled at paint­ings shown to me of Wyeth’s work. he is orig­i­nal but also truly Amer­i­can. In my mind he held fast to a tra­di­tion over 600 years old this alone is rea­son enough for mod­ernist to dis­like his work. I my self think art Crit­ics are as com­mon as flys and just as pesky! not to be taken seri­ously and def­i­nitely to be rel­e­gated to “those kind of Peo­ple” sta­tus. I put for this thought, what is wrong with being sen­ti­men­tal? if that is your truth. I think his work has a gritty qual­ity. I’m old enough to know of life in the 1960’s maybe by todays standers its rote but for the 60’s it was fresh and cut­ting at a time when the vary idea of what Amer­ica stood for was in upheava.l I think Wyeth stood by his idea of what it meant to him. if we as artist can do that in the face of pres­sure to be com­mer­cial and prof­itable then we have def­i­nitely suc­ceeded indeed.

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