As I wandered the West Building at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, a wispy web of white paint caught my eye. Andrew Wyeth's Wind from the Sea is essentially that, an image of the wind, captured in a painting of an open window. While in front of the work, I marveled at how he was able to capture the feeling of the movement of the curtain billowing from the wind. I pondered the process the artist must go through to translate an image in life to the two dimensional canvas. But, today, as I revisited the painting again, I began to ponder instead, why did I even notice it?
What does it take to make you look? A bright color? Maybe. A shocking image? Definitely. Something unrecognizable? Sure. But an open window? In a neutral palette of browns and grays? Not likely. But, in this case, an open window, in a sea of paintings, stopped me dead in my tracks.
When I re-examined the painting from home (and with the internet at my fingertips,) I discovered that Andrew Wyeth was the son of an artist and illustrator, a painter of desolate landscapes in monotone palettes, and was labelled a realist. None of that mattered when I was in front of the work of art. But, now at home, looking at his most well-known work, Christina's World, a painting of a woman lying in a field, seen from behind and outstretched towards a building in the distance, I began to assign meaning. Cursory reading on Christina's World tells me that it was a portrait of a friend, who was homebound with polio and suddenly, with this knowledge, my Wyeth painting took on a melancholy meaning.
I then turned to read more about the Wind from the Sea and what it was said to represent. The National Gallery of Art's description told me that the window was in the attic of Christina's family home in coastal Maine. It gave me a thorough description of what was there; two well worn tire tracks leading to the sea, birds decorating a lace curtain, and a solid, sturdy window. A virtual wall text, if you will. I felt more informed, but I still didn't have the answer to my question. Why did I care? Why did I stop and look? I turned inward and asked myself, was I feeling particularly melancholy that day? Was it the palette that appeal to me? Neither satisfied. Maybe it was just as simple as the allure of an open window, albeit a fictional one.
In the end, I decided that it was Wyeth's invitation to view the world as he did that caught my eye. Perhaps that's the quality that appeals to me most about art, the ability to see the world through someone else's eyes. In Christina's World, he places her in the field and she functions as our doppelgänger, or double. We see her world through her eyes, but we are simultaneously observing her as well and internally imagining what her life must have been like. We remain the observer. Instead, at the window, I was able to see the view as if I was the artist himself. Wyeth captured a moment. A moment I've seen before, but never took the time to really notice. The gentle breeze moving a curtain. Stripped of bright colors, distracting landscape, and any sort of narrative, I saw the scene for what it was. A fleeting instance. A moment of beauty. Life.
To view Wind from the Sea, visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Tour Andrew Wyeth's studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Learn more about the Wyeth family at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine.
Knutson, Anne Classen, Christopher Crosman, Kathleen A. Foster, Michael R. Taylor, and Andrew Wyeth. 2005. Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic. Atlanta: High Museum of Art. (Find at your local library.)
Meryman, Richard. 1996. Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins. (Find at your local library.)
Wyeth, Andrew, and Thomas Hoving. 1995. Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography. Boston: Bulfinch Press. (Find at your local library.)