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Wyeth, Andrew - VM - Victoria Emily Jones

Andrew Wyeth: Pentecost

Like a Wind

by Victoria Emily Jones

There’s a spiritual presence in Andrew Wyeth’s Pentecost painting, which shows two tattered fishing nets hanging out to dry on a gray New England day, billowing in the wind like sails. Wyeth said the spirit he sensed in the nets was that of a young girl who had drowned at sea. [1] But surely the title invites associations with the divine as well.

Pentecost was painted on Allen Island, a former fishing outpost about five miles off the coast of Maine that Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, purchased in 1979. The painting’s title likely originated with Betsy, who titled most of Wyeth’s works, with his consent. She said the island was originally called Pentecost Island, a name bestowed by the English explorer George Weymouth upon his first landfall in the New World on Pentecost Sunday, 1605. [2]

The Christian liturgical feast of Pentecost celebrates the historic outpouring of God’s Spirit on the church. Acts 2:2 describes the sound of his descent as “like a mighty rushing wind.” Full of elemental movement, Wyeth’s Pentecost plays upon scripture’s characterization of God’s Spirit as wind, breath, pneuma, visualizing this invisible energy through the animating effect it has on a pair of seining nets. The nets could be read as a reference to the profession of several of Jesus’s disciples, who first encountered their rabbi while at work on a fishing boat. He fills their nets with a miraculous catch of fish—so large that the nets break!—and then calls them to be “fishers of people,” who cast wide God’s nets of grace, gathering others in. How the Spirit must have blown that day, compelling Simon, Andrew, James, and John into this new vocation.

Wyeth is typically described as a realist painter, but he always bristled against that label. Although much of his work is based on direct observation of the land and people around him, he trafficked in metaphor, memory, mystery. Some critics place him instead in the tradition of magic realism, which “renders ordinary subjects in a sharply focused, precisely delineated style, but . . . has an element of suggestive ambiguity, as if secrets lie below the surface.” [3]

When I attended the major Wyeth retrospective in 2017 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in the artist’s hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, I was struck by how considerably wind features in his paintings. In Wind from the Sea, probably the most famous example, the frayed lace curtains in the attic bedroom of his summer neighbor Christina Olson echo the nets in Pentecost, as they too catch a sea breeze and, crocheted with birds, fly. The wind brushes a farmhouse dinner bell in Slight Breeze and enlivens a wooden stake with a crossbar (the remnants of a scarecrow) in Dodges Ridge, and it sends feathers floating above a summer lawn in Airborne.

Some read the wind in Wyeth’s paintings as ominous or haunting, but I read it as a benign spiritual presence—a divine one. I read it as God sweeping through gloom, asserting his hereness and giving life to that which is otherwise lifeless. If the presence is ghostly, it’s holy ghostly. It activates and uplifts.

Perhaps we are the nets in Pentecost—vessels torn and patched but full of God’s breath.

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Andrew Wyeth: Pentecost1989, tempera with pencil on hardboard panel, 20 3/4 × 30 5/8 in. The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection (private). Photo © Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Also pictured: Wind from the Sea, 1947; Airborne, 1996.

Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009) is one of the best-known American painters of the twentieth century. While many modern artists were turning toward abstraction, Wyeth stuck to realistic portrayals of the everyday people and things that surrounded him in rural Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and around his summer home in Cushing, Maine. Over his seventy-plus-year career, he typically avoided using oil paints, preferring instead the mediums of watercolor or egg tempera. His most famous painting is Christina’s World, which depicts his neighbor and friend, crippled by a degenerative muscle condition but refusing a wheelchair, crawling across a field. Wyeth was not a Christian, but he was fascinated by the supernatural, and his work is often praised for its spiritual quality. https://andrewwyeth.com/

Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org. Her educational background is in journalism, English literature, and music, but her current research focuses on ways in which the visual arts can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. She serves on the board of the Eliot Society, a DC-based nonprofit that fosters discussions about the role of the arts in the life of the church, and is a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture, an online biblical art project led by King’s College London.

NOTES

1. “You see . . . at the time a young girl was washed out to sea in a storm. They couldn’t save her. In time the body floated by off Pemaquid Point. I was thinking about that girl’s body floating there underwater, and the nets became her spirit.” Andrew Wyeth, in Christopher Crosman, “Andrew Wyeth: A Man Who Loved Islands,” Island Journal 25 (2009): 60.

2. Betsy Wyeth, in a conversation with Christopher B. Crosman, July 2004, cited in Crosman, “Islands,” in Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 101.

3. Carol Strickland, “Emphasis on the Magic: A Wyeth Retrospective,” Art in America, July 11, 2017, https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/emphasis-on-the-magic-a-wyeth-retropective/.

ArtWay Visual Meditation Pentecost 2019