Love in the time of tempera

Now, I’m sure it’s just a phase, but I think I’m obsessed.

It all started with a perfectly innocuous exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in DC in the summer of 2014. I walked slowly, happily, pensively through, engrossed in the piercing details and somber loveliness and sweet longing of the paintings I passed.

And then I came to Wind from the Sea, and I was struck. It’s the gorgeous painting above, full of wistfulness and delicacy and…dare I say magic? I do. Who knows why, with its muted colors and mundane subject matter, it made such a lasting impact on me. But somehow, it made its way in.

A year later, the image still seared in my mind, I purchased a large print of it to help remedy some blank wall space in a new bedroom. It hung there awkwardly for a while, not fitting properly in its frame, and I eventually relegated it to the closet. (I just can’t take less than perfection. Not when it comes to decorating, at least.) I replaced it with a properly proportioned map of Paris, which still fills that frame today. The rolled-up poster gathered dust for many months after that, and I thought of it seldom, only when I’d do a deep clean of my closet. As I said, seldom.

But then. Then, I was standing on a screen corner and a city bus passed by with the following ad:



In Retrospect

An American Icon –

A Once in a Lifetime Exhibition.

June 24-September 17

The memories came rushing back, and I went rushing to the Brandywine River Museum of Art as soon as I could. And that’s how it all started, this new obsession of mine. Allow me to explain.

First, there was Karl.

Karl was a neighbor and regular subject of Wyeth’s. This portrait arrested me. Andrew’s father, N. C. Wyeth, had died suddenly and tragically three years before, and Andrew greatly regretted never having painted him. Karl acted somewhat as a surrogate, his both brutal and tender tendencies not unlike NC’s. The details of his weathered face are exquisite, the hook in the background menacing. Karl’s eyes seem to search yours as you look at him, no? And he doesn’t dare crack a smile. There’s a gravity, a hardness, about this that enthralled me.

Trodden Weed was another favorite of mine. It is reminiscent of many walks Wyeth had taken through the country, his head down, searching for details. “You can be in a place for years and years and not see something,” he explained, “and then when it dawns, all sorts of nuggets of richness start popping all over the place. You’ve gotten below the obvious.”

In words and in paint, he’s captured a love of mine, that of seemingly inconsequential details of everyday sights that really hold great beauty and significance, if only we stop to notice. There’s the light breeze that blows the coat so slightly, the drooping folds of the boots, the quiet light in the sliver of horizon. Beautiful.

Then came Cooling Shed and the most beautiful buckets I’d ever seen.

Truly, have you ever seen such beautiful buckets? They’re superb. I could look at those buckets all day. And in some ways I do, having set this image as my phone’s background. I’m not kidding around about my love for these buckets.

Then there’s Ericksons, another amazingly intricate portrait with penetrating detail. The shine in the pots, the shadows along the floorboards, George Erickson’s tight lips and shining eyes. The open door at the end of the hall beckons. I might as well be sitting across from George myself.

But my (new) favorite of all, the one that has usurped Wind from the Sea and has filled a new frame on my wall, is Slight Breeze.

Isn’t it charming? I love the delicate shades of white, the happy sun streaming down, the knobby wooden posts, the taut clothesline. There’s a pregnant silence, the humble bell waiting to be rung, the shutter waiting to be swung open. I’d love doing laundry if it were always this picturesque.

My museum visit that day sparked a great love of Andrew Wyeth and the stunning beauty he has brought into the world of art. I’ve come back again and again to these images, and I’ve considered returning for a repeat visit before the exhibition’s end. I’ve immersed myself in a fascinating biography, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, plunged into his childhood and his relationship with his father and his siblings’ personalities. It’s a real joy to throw myself into the complex life of this prolific artist, his body of work sparking all sorts of questions and inspirations of my own. In some ways, what I’m learning of him is harrowing, but the pursuit is altogether invigorating. So, I’ll most certainly keep it up.

My new wall hanging reminds me of this new artistic love of mine, with all its delight and intrigue. It reminds me of that trip to the National Gallery, the closeted print, the bus on the street corner. Just a simple post card in a plain frame is all it takes.

It’s bordered by framed cards from Trader Joe’s, a painting by my dear grandmother, and prints from Krakow and Paris. And each of those, too, conjures a certain recollection. But those are love stories for another time.




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