Painted in 1960 at Bradford's Point on the St. George River in Maine, Above the Narrows embodies the most exceptional hallmarks of Andrew Wyeth's accomplishments in the tempera medium that have made him one of the most significant figures in American art. The present painting exhibits the subtle yet dense narratives that pay tribute to the passage of time and the people and places that inhabited the artist's daily life in Maine and Pennsylvania. The artist's teenage son, Nicky, serves as Wyeth's inspiration for the present work, standing with the expectant gaze of youth and the posturing of confidence of a young adult standing on the precipice. These universal subjects as displayed in Nicky are revered for their seeming simplicity and sheer beauty, for their celebration of rural American life, and for their haunting, plaintive silence that pervades his greatest masterworks, such as Above the Narrows.
Wyeth began to experiment with tempera in the late 1930s and by the time he completed Above the Narrows his vision and controlled mastery of the medium have come fully realized. This rich medium is critical to the success of Above the Narrows, endowing the scene with the most subtle layers of color and allowing for great precision of detail while retaining the refined surface and sense of atmosphere that are so integral to Wyeth's paintings. The artist says of the medium, "I love the quality of the colors: the earths, the terra verde, the ochers, the Indian reds, and the blue-reds. They aren't artificial. I like to pick the colors up and hold them in my fingers. Tempera is something with which I build--like building in great layers the way the earth itself was built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness..." (as quoted in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 11) Tempera allows Wyeth to suggest a sense of timelessness and imbue Above the Narrows with the stillness and mystery that is emblematic of his finest work.
Wyeth is a constant observer, often working in series inspired by subjects familiar to him. He builds upon them in sketches which he swiftly and deftly creates in quick passages of light that fall on a landscape or a passing glimpse from one of his sitters. As a result, his finished compositions often result in a marvelous dichotomy of abstraction grounded in precisely rendered realism of the places and people of Maine. Yet, even with this investment, Wyeth remains the impartial spectator, creating narratives that are deeply charged with his own emotion yet maintaining an ability to allow for the viewer's own interpretation.
Wyeth's subjects commonly bear witness to the passage of time, and Above the Narrows is among the artist's most profound representations of this theme. It reveals his enduring fascination with the past and present: as expressed through the permanence of the landscape that anchors the scene on which Nicky stands, juxtaposed against the ebbing temporal tide that captures the figure and viewer's attention. The gentle curve of the sloping hillside places the figure in a position of monumentality standing over the sweeping landscape. By approaching the figure from behind the artist is able to effectively detach himself from the scene allowing the viewer to directly engage the composition as a whole. Wyeth has used a subtle light source, as if painted in the middle of the day, to gently illuminate the scene with an even tonality. This softness of light lends a sense of tranquility to the landscape while a haze of fog hangs over the island in the distance, reinforcing a sense of calmness and gentle stillness to the setting. Although physically large in scale and expansive in its landscape, the scene Wyeth has presented is intimate, not grand, and this intimacy lends itself to an honesty and immediacy in his depiction.
This painting will be included in Betsy James Wyeth's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.
Above the Narrows
Tempera on panel
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Property from the Estate of Jack J. Dreyfus, Jr.
Signed 'Andrew Wyeth' (lower right)
Andrew Wyeth , 20th Century, Paintings, tempera, United States of America, figures
Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Andrew Wyeth: Temperas, Water Colors and Drawings, November 2-December 9, 1962.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Andrew Wyeth--Temperas, Watercolors, Dry Brush, Drawings, February 6-April 12, 1967.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, and elsewhere, Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth, May 28-August 30, 1998, no. 67.
48 x 32¼ in. (121.9 x 82 cm.)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Andrew Wyeth: Temperas, Water Colors and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Buffalo, New York, 1962, p. 10, no. 34.
R. Meryman, Andrew Wyeth, Boston, Massachusetts, 1968, p. 132, illustrated.
B. Venn and A.D. Weinberg, Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1998, pp. 117, 218, fig. 95, illustrated.
M. Hart, Een vlucht regenwulpen, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2002, n.p., illustrated.
[With]M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, by 1961.