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Adam

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

    Deb­o­rah,

    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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