WATERVILLE, Maine — In the fall of 1945, the famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth was killed when his station wagon collided with an oncoming train. In the months that followed, his son Andrew Wyeth, in shock, painted “Winter 1946,” the closest thing he’d ever made to a portrait of his father: a hillside yellowed by autumn, a harried young boy navigating its slope looking untethered. The train tracks where his father died lay on the other side of that hill, near the family home in Chadds Ford, Pa. For Andrew, who had been building a painting career of bright, poppy confection, it became a place of a harrowing rebirth. “When he died,” Andrew told his biographer Richard Meryman, “I was just a clever watercolorist.” With “Winter 1946,” he said, for the first time, “I was painting with real reason to do it.”
Another image of that hillside dominates the first gallery of “Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death,” recently opened at the Colby College Museum of Art. This one, though, is strikingly singular: huge; a watercolor; all but abstract, just the wisp of a treetop barely cresting the rise, a slight, solitary tether to reality. It’s as powerful as it is unexpected in the Wyeth oeuvre — loose, chaotic, abrupt. Its title: “Kuerner’s Hill 1,” the very place his father had died. Wyeth made this one in 1991, the land cracked and contoured in bleak, ashen white, the sky a pale stain of dun gray-blue.
His father’s accident — the suddenness, the shock, the totality of it — echoed through nearly everything Wyeth did. Impermanence, decay, and the inexorable churn of time were the existential forces that drove his work from that moment. “Christina’s World,” his absurdly famous 1948 painting of a young woman slumped in a field of pale brown grass — home, and safety, on the faraway horizon — is an enduring emblem of the Wyeth ethos. He chronicled the withering of American rural life, set almost exclusively in the deadened landscapes of fall and winter, “when you feel the bone structure of the landscape, the loneliness of it,” he once said.
At Colby, the death at the heart of the exhibition is Wyeth’s own. The museum is showing selections from a suite of pictures he called the Funeral Group, made mostly in the 1990s, of Wyeth’s imaginings of his own demise. (He died in 2009 at 91.) Seen here for the first time — they were only discovered in 2018, in the home of Wyeth’s friends in Chadds Ford — they can be affectingly oblique, like “Kuerner’s Hill 1,” or unambiguously direct, like “Kuerner’s Hill 3,” a graphite sketch of pallbearers tending an open casket in which the deceased’s nose has the unmistakable Romanesque arc of the artist’s own. (You can’t miss it, the show makes sure: It includes “Mirror, Mirror Study,” 1991, a self-portrait of Wyeth reclining, eyes closed, the lines of his profile utterly identical.)
Death is no outlier in the realm of artistic contemplation. Across movements and millennia, it’s been a reliable fixation, and funerary portraits even more so; I often think of Claude Monet’s quietly profound 1879 painting of his wife, Camille, bound in diaphanous fabric on her deathbed, as the culmination of centuries’ worth of dignified grief.
For Wyeth, dismissed by much of the art establishment throughout his career as a throwback nostalgist, the Funeral Group adds layers to his legacy, or so the Colby exhibition suggests. In the exhibition’s second room, some of Wyeth’s weirder pictures hang alongside work by contemporaries long-since canonized as avant-garde. Here you’ll find Andy Warhol’s “Skull,” 1976 (no explanation required) and David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Face in the Dirt),” circa 1990, of the artist prone and buried to his eyelids in rubble, sharing space with Wyeth’s bizarre “Spring,” 1978, in which he lies naked in a vanishing snowbank at the foot (of course) of Kuerner’s Hill, and his corny “Dr. Syn,” 1981, a skeletal figure draped in an officer’s longcoat (a self-portrait, no less).
The museum was wise to hive off its compare-and-contrast impulses to another room; it’s mostly a diversion that distracts from the subtle force of the Funeral Group. In Wyeth, we had an artist whose career was all but generated by tragedy, for whom the specter of death hung over all. His moody scenes of rural Maine and Pennsylvania capture the twilight of a way of being, so much said about fading vitality with so little: the graying sky, the waft of curtain in an autumn breeze, the brittle brown grasses that ground his pictures in the bedrock of elegiac lament.
His contemplation of his own mortality feels foundational; the presence of the inevitable stalked his work from that awful day in 1945 onward. Made almost a half century later, the Funeral Group captures Wyeth profoundly at peace with his own end. Most of the works here are sketches, pencil on paper, that hint at a major painting never made.
At the foot of the hill, people cluster around an open casket. Just over the rise, Wyeth’s father was killed in a horror of heat and flash; but here, at his own funeral, all is quiet, with the artist lovingly tended to by a procession of friends and family. Wyeth drafted the full scene, and then broke it down in a handful of sketches honed in on specific details. Singled out, faces and expressions have the resonant clarity of serenity and adoration. A soft-featured woman — his friend, Helen Sipala — hands clasped and eyes closed, stands next to the open casket; Betsy, his wife, stoically stands with a hand on the casket’s lip. Another woman at the head of the casket lets her gaze fall to Wyeth’s tranquil face.
Is it reasonable to think of the series as anything but an exorcism? I don’t think so. In designing his own end, on the very spot where the senior Wyeth had been taken by disaster, Andrew laid himself to rest in a way forever denied his father: in peace.
ANDREW WYETH: LIFE AND DEATH
At Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, Maine. Through Oct. 16. 207-859-5600, colby.edu/museum