An Artist Called Jamie

Jamie Wyeth
Jamie Wyeth. Photograph by Paul Seligman.
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Jamie Wyeth
Jamie Wyeth. Photograph by Paul Seligman.


By Marge Cook
Issue cover by Stell Shevis
March 1968

[dropcap letter=”J”]amie Wyeth seldom takes a day off, but he likes to disappear on his birthdays. Last July 6th he collected some friends, hired a boat, and went sailing off the coast of Maine to celebrate the day on which he became twenty-one.

Most of Jamie’s summer birthdays have been spent in Maine, where he and his brother Nicky have sailed since they were knee-high to an oarlock. Jamie, the second son of the Andrew Wyeths, already had come of age as a recognized artist with an impressive portfolio at a time when most young men still are trying to decide on their life’s work. Six months before his twenty-first birthday a one-man show of James Wyeth’s oils and watercolors was displayed in New York City at the 57th Street gallery of M. Knoedler & Company. In a foreword to the catalog, which listed the show’s forty-one paintings, Mr. Lincoln Kirstein — whose portrait by Jamie furnished the frontispiece —unequivocallv stated, “He is the finest American portrait painter since John Singer Sargent.”

"I used to go to movies and come back and make drawings of the characters — merely pencil and paper. It was there; it was natural; I just evolved into it."

The world of art first was introduced to James Browning Wyeth in a 1952 dry-brush by his father, Andrew Wyeth, entitled “Faraway.” Five-year-old Jamie was shown in faded dungarees, a Davy Crockett coonskin cap, and a pair of metal-tipped boots which had been worn by a boy before the Civil War; he sat in a field of winter-browned grass, lost in dreams. A quiet, introspective child, he used to peek into his father’s studio, ask a question which would be answered quietly, then go away.

“I used to go to movies and come back and make drawings of the characters — merely pencil and paper.” Jamie says. “It was there; it was natural; I just evolved into it.”

Jamie has been surrounded since birth by a family of artists. His maternal grandfather, the late Merle James of Cushing, Maine, was an artist of merit, as is his mother’s sister, Gwendolyn James Cook, who lives at Mosquito Harbor in Martinsville. In addition to his paternal grandfather, the famous illustrator, Newell Convers Wyeth and his father, Andrew, three Wyeth aunts are well-established artists. They are Carolyn Wyeth, Ann Wyeth McCoy, and Henriette Wyeth Hurd. To complicate this family Who’s Who further, the latter two are married to distinguished artists: John W. McCoy of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and Wheeler Bay, Maine and the much-in-the-news Peter Hurd, whose commissioned portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson was turned down by the President as “the ugliest thing I ever saw.”

With his older brother, Nicky, Jamie played on the rocks and in the woods bordering the Georges River in Cushing, Maine, where the Wyeths’ summer home was built during Jamie’s first year of life. (It is the living room of this house that Andrew Wyeth immortalized in his tempera, “Her Room,” which was purchased by the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine for $65,000, the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living American artist.) One autumn, when the Wyeth family remained in Maine late in the season, Jamie and Nicky went to school in Cushing. Jamie remembers “sitting down near the front on the left, and all the grades in one room.”

Jamie Wyeth playing on the rocks at Broad Cove
Jamie (left) and brother Nicky playing on the rocks at Broad Cove, Cushing in 1947, when the family's summer home was being built. Photograph by Jim Moore.

Back in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania during the winter months, the boys formed a Robin Hood outlaw band and terrorized the countryside, burning down the camp of a rival group called the Tree Hackers. Following the Wyeth tradition of dressing up, they borrowed from their father’s store of costumes dating from Revolutionary War days, and pretended that they were living in another era.

To allow Jamie more time with the art which absorbed him, he was taken out of public school after the sixth grade and privately tutored. He studied the usual subjects, but didn’t like math, so dropped it after awhile. In his early teens his Aunt Carolyn took him in command and made him draw forms, such as circles and cubes, for a whole year.

“I wanted to do other things, but she said, ‘just draw in black-and-white.’ It was tiresome, but a good background. She has had as much influence on my work, really, as has my father. She’s terrific with the basic things, color and what-not.”

To get a thorough knowledge of anatomy, Jamie worked in a morgue, dissecting cadavers under the watchful eyes of a top-flight surgeon. He usually asks a sitter to take off his shirt to allow examination of the structure of bones and muscle, and he will often feel of a subject’s face as he paints.

More “James” than “Wyeth” in looks and mannerisms, the quiet little boy has grown into a six-foot-plus good-looking young man, polite, poised, still introspective. He answers questions easily, elaborating knowledgeably in dramatic detail or expertly parrying, always charming. The crisp curls which are a Wyeth family trait have been tempered in this third generation to silky-fine locks, worn moderately mod. The eyes, which appraise and absorb every detail, are strange in color: light brown with a hint of green edging the irises. His nose still shows where it was broken when a speeding car smashed into his Corvette at a bend in the road in Cushing a few years ago. He dresses casually and comfortably, often in dun-colored corduroy slacks and heavy, hand-knit sweaters.

The Andrew Wyeth family today — Betsy Wyeth, Nicky, Andrew, and Jamie. Photograph by Jim Moore.

[dropcap letter=”T”]he early discipline instilled into Jamie has stayed with him.

“Many times I make myself go to the studio. The idea that people work only when they’re inspired is ridiculous. There are many things that pull you away. You’re exposed to many types of life. It gets interesting, and you want to go into this or that. I think I create time for myself, pushing things that should be done, trying everything as fast as possible. Getting things down and expressing as much as possible at an early age seems terribly important. Also to be free to jump from one thing to another — not to get set in a certain way.

“I hate to sound like a work horse — work, work, work. I’m not a great worker, but I suppose I have the best time when I do work, when I get interested in something. It becomes intoxicating and I want to get back to it, you know, or I go sort of stir-crazy. And yet, when I’m not working, I don’t particularly like talking about painting. I’ve seen so much of this — young painters in New York who stay up all night talking about what they’re doing and what they’re going to do, and who have no energy left the next day to do it. I never want to get into that sort of thing. There’s a great group of them in Greenwich Village. They look on me as some sort of oddity.”

He paints in oil and in watercolors, about evenly divided between the two media. He has tried tempera, but the quality that his father likes — the dryness — is exactly what he doesn’t like. Jamie likes the moist, transparent quality of oil which he uses in his portraits, although he confesses to some impatience with its slowness in drying. Once he stuck some of his finished paintings in ovens to hasten the drying process and a couple of them burned up.

He doesn’t care that people compare his work with that of his famous father. But he welcomes criticism of his work from his dad.

“We’re two different types. I think that most of the similarity comes in subject matter. Both living in the same area, I think we tend to work on the same sort of things.”

Jamie Wyeth
Photographed by Marge Cook.

Jamie describes himself as a slow painter, and destroys much of what he paints in an effort to be more selective as he gets better known, “I look at some of my old stuff and think, “Jeez, how could I ever have done that?” Nevertheless, his output is amazing. And the selling prices, determined by Knoedler’s, are steadily climbing. A year ago a watercolor brought as much as $1,500 and people were willing to pay $20,000 for an oil by Jamie Wyeth.

Like all painters, Jamie constantly gets suggestions for subject matter. He thinks everyone is paintable but tries to steer away from “characters.” He often depicts things that people walk by without seeing — a white-wash bucket or an abandoned capstan. This past summer he was fascinated by a kettle on the back porch of a Maine residence. He saw it every day and it was always covered with flies and he wondered what was inside. So he painted it, flies and all; he paints things as they are.

But it is in portraiture that he shines. He has painted his young friends, forgotten old men, society matrons, governors, movie stars and the military. He would rather not paint on commission, because he insists on painting his way and does not like to be answering questions constantly as he paints — it “breaks the mood.” For this reason he has painted mostly people with whom he is acquainted. He so thoroughly studies the personality of whomever he is painting that some of his subjects are startled to see themselves as they look to others.

He loses himself in his work and is oblivious to all else. During last summer’s marathon fog, he worked right next to the Manana Island fog bell without hearing its loud clanging. He even forgot lunch while he worked until Manana’s hermit reminded him.

Last year a girl was posing for him when a huge plate glass window let go in the wind and crashed all around them. The girl fled, but Jamie kept on painting. And one day he was Iying on his stomach across some railroad ties, working away, when he felt the ties moving under him but didn’t hear the train, which was a few yards away. He threw his paints over the side and jumped after them as the train rumbled by.

Because much time away from painting, like piano playing, makes one lose his touch, service in the National Guard Ready Reserves in the State of Delaware has been an ideal solution to Jamie in fulfilling his military obligations. He reports for duty on Friday and Saturday of the first weekend of every month, and has four years left to go. While there he furnishes art work for the Guard’s magazine, has painted Delaware’s Governor Terry, and started a portrait of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara which had to be abandoned, because the subject could not find time to pose.

As a member of the Air Guard, Jamie became acquainted with Brig. Gen. William W. Spruance, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who miraculously escaped from a burning jet five years ago and then spent four years of recuperation in a hospital. Jamie had been offered the opportunity to go to Vietnam to paint whatever he wished, so he made a date one Sunday to discuss it with the general.

Jamie Wyeth
Photographed by Marge Cook.

“When I got down there he said, ‘We’re going to take a little flight in a plane,’ and here was this huge, six-engine, experimental jet that the general was testing for the Pentagon. We wore oxygen masks and he flew it with one hand, put it into spins, and obviously was trying to break some kind of record. I’ve never been so terrified in my life. But it was terrific to do because I was painting him at the time, and this is part of his life.”

In identifying himself with the subject he is painting, Jamie’s most challenging and longest involvement lasted over a year, when he painted a posthumous portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which is presently under wraps.

First approached to do the Kennedy portrait on commission, Jamie said no. Working from photographs had no appeal. Then, because he always had been interested in President Kennedy, he thought, “Why not?” and was given full cooperation by the Kennedy family to do it his way. “If it turns out, fine — and if it doesn’t turn out, fine.”

As is his wont when painting a portrait, Jamie lived the same kind of life as his subject. He lived with members of the Kennedy family, campaigned with Ted, who most resembles his brother Jack, and learned the true story of the man behind the public myth. Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy loaned him many personal photos of her late husband.

“My greatest fear with the portrait was that it would look dead, like a photograph, so I used Ted a lot, just to get life into it. I immersed myself in films and thousands of photographs and recordings until John Kennedy was so imprinted on my mind, the way he moved and everything, that I could move him any way I wanted — visually, you know. It was interesting to sit down and put him in a position on paper and see how he’d look in it.”

The result is very different from any published likeness of President Kennedy. It is pensive and serious. Mrs. Kennedy likes it. Caroline Kennedy observed, “It looks like Daddy in conference.”

Nowadays, Jamie spends as much time as possible in Maine, and has a special fondness for Monhegan Island, which he and Nicky reach in Nicky’s super-charged speed boat from their Cushing home in less than twenty minutes. Recently, Jamie purchased a piece of Monhegan, next door to artist William Hekking. He plans to build a house there, “definitely not a split level.”

Jamie Wyeth
Photographed by Jim Moore.

“I like cold weather, hate the heat. Most of the people I know on Monhegan live there the year round.”

Whether or not he ever elects to become a Maine year-rounder, Maine and its people already share lavishly in the brilliant work of a young artist called Jamie, who has both the individuality and the industry of one of their own.

Jamie Wyeth

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