Carolyn Wyeth: A Unique Force

It is often said that artists, whether a painter, musician, or writer, create some of their best work as a “tortured soul”. Some have been known to isolate themselves, while others are seen as living a lifestyle of self-indulgence.

For artist Carolyn Wyeth, the rules and recognition were never appealing to her. Growing up in a family of artists, including her famous brother Andrew Wyeth (to see more on Andrew Wyeth, see, Carolyn was often described as having a feisty, straightforward character, with a unique tendency to do as she pleased.

Carolyn Wyeth

Carolyn Wyeth

Carolyn Wyeth Picks up the Brush

Carolyn began studying art at the age of 12 under the guidance of her father N.C. Wyeth. He taught all his children that it was imperative to have a solid foundation of drawing and, in particular, charcoal studies of cubes, pyramids and plaster casts before attempting to pick up a paintbrush. Not concerned with the rules her father set out, Carolyn simply picked up the paintbrush whenever she pleased and did things her way.

N.C. Wyeth was thoroughly impressed with the talent his daughter exhibited, but never vocalized his admiration, thinking it would encourage her to seek out his advice. Nevertheless, in a letter he wrote in 1940, he praised Carolyn’s painting “Mask of Keats”, saying, “If she never painted another thing, this will record a truly important talent”. In her early twenties, Carolyn Wyeth was already winning awards and honours for her unique style of work.

Teaching: Integrating her Father’s Methods

In the 1940’s, Carolyn Wyeth began teaching art to a chosen few in her hometown of Chadds Ford, PA and in Maine during the summer. She taught for over 30 years. While Carolyn did not completely adhere to her father’s ways of teaching his children, even rebelled at times, his practices did influence the way she taught her students. She used her father’s old studio and equipment, and accepted no more than 10 students at one time.

Carolyn went on to teach her nephew, Jamie Wyeth, and her nieces, Anna B. and Robin McCoy. And ironically, like her father, she made sure they grasped the basics of geometric shapes and plaster casts before moving on to painting in colour.

Carolyn’s Paintings and Style

Carolyn Wyeth never ventured far from her hometown of Chadd’s Ford, PA, or from the house she grew up in with its 18 acres of land. Her familiar surroundings were her source of inspiration.

Carolyn mainly created still-lifes that were readily available around her home: chairs and tables, food items, and objects from her father’s studio. She also painted the trees and woods that surrounded the house. She once stated, “What inspired me in my painting is this whole damn place here - every tree, every rock, the fields, the hills, the studio, the smell of the place, everything I just love.”

This talented artist also reconstructed private moments, suggesting romance, loss, and remembrance, making her work that much more intense and personal. Critics described some of her work as “brooding, introspective and displaying a raw power seldom seen in contemporary painting.”

Carolyn Wyeth’s style is very distinctive, straightforward, and vivid in colour. Following her exhibitions held in Philadelphia, Chester County, and Wilmington, the art reviews regarding her paintings held words such as “direct”, “simple”, “forthright”, and “effective.” Carolyn once said, “I painted what I goddamn wanted”. And that she did and it won her awards and praise from critics alike.

Carolyn Wyeth the Recluse

When Carolyn’s mother passed away in 1973, Carolyn took over the family home and studio. She lived the rest of her life in the very place where she was born.

People saw Carolyn as a bit of a recluse, seemingly content living with her dogs and her paintings. According to the artist who conducted a rare interview in 1979, Carolyn stated, “I'm not exactly a recluse, but nearly so, as close as I can. I think the best thing is a goddamn quiet life.” She added, “People don't mean that much to me."

Carolyn Wyeth was happy with her life. She created three to four art pieces a year, and hardly ever promoted her work through exhibitions, saying that she did not really have an interest in selling her pieces, that she painted because it gave her “a kick inside” and it allowed her to examine her relationship with things. Another interesting tidbit is that she rarely signed her work because she did not think there was much interest in her talent.

Carolyn Wyeth passed away in 1994. Although she was the least famous artist of the family, critics have hailed her as “the best painter in the family” and “the strongest woman artist in America today.” Glowing reviews for such a recluse.

Written by Dan Woods

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