American artist Andrew Wyeth lived from January 12th 1917 to January 16th 2009, and was most prominently a realist painter, considered one of the most famous US artists of the mid 20th Century. Wyeth worked from was highly influenced by the region he lived in summer, Cushing, Maine, and also his hometown, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He’d paint these contours, in his words, “not because they’re better than other hills. It’s that [he] was born here”. The people and objects he paints in these locations are part of land itself; the many Afro-Americans he depicts, in particular in his Chadds Ford work, were painted because they were “a part of the whole landscape that means so much to him”.
One of my favourite of Wyeth’s paintings is “Day of the Fair”, painted in Chadds Ford in 1963. It measures 14¾ inches by 19⅞ inches, was painted in the dry brush technique and is currently located in The City Art Museum of Saint Louis.
Dry Brush is when the brush holds, in this case watercolour, paint, but very little water. This delivers a characteristically scratchy appearance, and is a particular favourite with Wyeth, as it denies the watercolour its idiosyncratically sleek wash, and better portrays the solemnity and harsher reality in the subject. He is meticulous in his detail yet there is uniqueness in the composition of his subjects, with “Day of the Fair” being a classic example. The African-American lady sits off centre, placed in an empty whitewashed room, with a window shedding daylight to the right of her head; she is gently wringing her hands, and directly avoiding eye contact with the on-gazer; her eyes instead look at the ground to her right, while her mouth is subtly bent in a reflective frown. This exceptional gravity and disconnection with the observer is untypical of conventional portraits, therefore giving the painting that not-so-sweet aftertaste distinctive of Wyeth.
Day of the Fair (1963)
The depiction is completely lifelike, and the details such as the tiny brush strokes of the line of her eyelid, the checks on her outfit and the wrinkles of her palm all unite to make the painting intimate and even more intriguing. I find it interesting that Wyeth, with the exception of the windowsill, has avoided straight lines in this picture, with the crack down the centre of the wall being wobbly and discontinuous, and the back of the chair bending. An interpretation of this might be that the woman’s feeling of unhappiness is due to her perceived separation, by the said crack and the walls, from the outside world, and she has turned away from the light, where the light could represent happiness and connection.
The colours Wyeth has used are characteristically muted, restricted to undistinguishable grey, green and brown, and of course white. The light depicted is strikingly realistic and manages to emit a sombre tone, perhaps through the very rationed use of yellow to make sure it is not golden light, traditionally associated with joy, but a white-tinted-grey light, reminiscent of a cloudy day, where things can seem rundown and neglected, which is perhaps how the woman is feeling.
It is not hard to empathise with the lady, partly due to the painting’s scale; the size of 14¾ by 19⅞ inches is not large but not small, I’d argue it was just the right size to be able to see everything in one go without losing oneself in the detail but still be able to pinpoint smaller features, like the details of a large painting. The empty room means one’s eyes are drawn to the lady as if she is the only component of the picture; she is of course the focal point and it is in her face and hands that we experience the brightest, warmest colours, all around her is comparatively insipid.
I believe this painting portrays a black woman who has either decided not to go or has been left behind on the “Day of the Fair”. The fact that this day is significant enough to be named such shows it is probably quite an important and joyous event, and yet the subject is alone, indoors and miserable. She is dressed for the event by the looks of it, and yet she is perhaps avoiding it just as she is facing away from the light, yet her eye is involuntarily straying towards it. It is easy to speculate on this painting, as it is heavy with emotion; however its ambiguity remains, as Wyeth likes to leave us with a mystery. I personally, like many, find it a very evocative picture, as I instantly feel sympathy towards the young woman, due to her sorrowful countenance. However, it does not make me feel sad and hopeless but in fact draws me in closer for the afore-mentioned sense of enigma. Overall, this is one of my favourite of Wyeth’s character studies.
I have noticed, regarding Wyeth, that in his portraits he seems to depict solitude particularly poignantly; his characters’ emotions radiate from their expressions, posture and hand movements, and succeed, in my opinion, in evoking great pathos within the viewer.