“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.