Andrew Wyeth

Teaching Page

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Andrew Wyeth, “Winter Fields,” 1942. Tempera, oil, ink, and gesso on composition board, 17 5/16 × 41 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Benno C. Schmidt in memory of Mr. Josiah Marvel, first owner of this picture 77.91 © Andrew Wyeth.

This teaching page is a resource for your classroom. Here, you can find information on the artthe artistkey ideasdiscussion questions, and additional resources"Winter Fields" was included in Real/Surreal, a circulating loan exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. It is not currently on view at MMoCA.

THE ART

Andrew Wyeth is known for his use of realism and a subdued color palate. “Winter Fields” is a masterful example of the artist’s style, with its emphasis on exacting detail and muted colors. At first glance, the painting seems almost hyper-realistic in its detailed rendering of, for example, the feathers on the dead crow and the blades of dry grass in which it lies. Upon closer inspection, this heightened detail seems to push the painting into a territory that lies beyond simple representation of reality. Where objects in the distance would normally appear less distinct, the distant farm remains as crisply detailed as the nearby grass. Wyeth further alters the scene by using different vantage points. In the painting’s foreground, he offers a ground-level view of the crow; however, the landscape beyond is depicted as if from the viewpoint of a person standing in the field. Wyeth’s subtle alterations of reality contribute to the magic realism of his art.

Like most of Wyeth’s paintings, “Winter Fields” is not an exact copy of any one scene, but rather a compilation and manipulation of different elements. He often made watercolor and drypoint sketches of these elements before embarking on the final paintings. For “Winter Fields,” Wyeth made a detailed drypoint study of the clump of grasses that appears in the foreground. He found the dead crow outside his father’s studio.

The objects in Wyeth’s paintings are often highly symbolic with the imagery carefully sifted and edited. He says, “I think it’s what you take out of a picture that counts. There’s a residue. An invisible shadow.” Wyeth said of “Winter Fields,” “This crow in one of Karl’s fields symbolized the nature and intimacy of the Pennsylvania landscape. The blue-black of the feathers helped me break free of ‘impressionism.’ Without seeing this crow I would never have done Christina’s World which has an emphasis on passes and the landscape very close-up—what lurks close down at the surface.” 

Winter Fields” was painted in part with tempera, the medium Andrew Wyeth favored. He said, “It’s a dry pigment mixed with distilled water and yoke of egg. 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 was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness.”

THE ARTIST

Andrew Wyeth grew up around art. His father, N.C. Wyeth, was a popular illustrator who painted pictures that illustrated books such as Treasure IslandRobin Hood, and The Last of the Mohicans. Andrew was home-schooled due to frequent illness; he therefore had the opportunity to spend much of his time drawing and wandering the fields around his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, wearing the costumes his father used for his illustrations. Beginning at age 15, Andrew received two years of strict technical training from his father. After that, he determined his own artistic direction by studying western European artistic traditions and developing his technique in egg tempera despite his father’s disapproval of the medium.

Wyeth’s pastoral walks continued throughout his life, and his strong connection to the landscape is evident in his art, most of which depicts scenes from around his home in Chadd’s Ford or his summer home in Cushing, Maine. He painted Christina’s World, one of the best-known American paintings, of his neighbor, Christina Olson, on her farm in Cushing.

KEY IDEAS

  • Subtle alterations of reality
  • Composite scenes
  • Objects as symbols for abstract ideas
  • Revival of egg tempera as a medium

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What do you think is the position of the viewer of this image; that is, from what perspective are you viewing the bird and the house in the background? In what ways do your eyes need to adjust as you contemplate the image?

  2. Magic realism is an artistic style in which realistic techniques are used to portray a mundane scene that contains subtle fantastic elements. In what ways is “Winter Fields” realistic? In what ways does it depart from reality?

  3. Wyeth said that the crow depicted in “Winter Fields” “…symbolized the nature and intimacy of the Pennsylvania landscape.” In what ways might the crow represent the entirety of a particular landscape? How might it convey the idea of an intimate relationship with the land?

  4. Andrew Wyeth favored tempera. He said, “It’s a dry pigment mixed with distilled water and yoke of egg. 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 was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness.” How might the pace imposed by tempera be an advantage for Wyeth? How else might the material have affected the work? How do you like to work? Fast and gestural? Slow and methodical? What mediums are most conducive to the way you like to work?

RESOURCES

On the Artist:

Andrew Wyeth 
New York Times obituary 
Analysis of "Winter Fields" 

Art Methods:

Egg Tempera 

Context:

Magic Realism