“If there is such a thing as a purely American tradition in Art, it is represented at its best in the straightforward canvases of Andrew Wyeth.”
— LIFE magazine, May 17, 1948
By the time he turned 30, Andrew Wyeth had already cemented himself as one of the most important and quintessential American artists of his time. Born a full century ago in Chadds Ford, Penn., on July 12, 1917, Wyeth's only formal education in art came from his father, Newell Convers “N.C.” Wyeth, who was an accomplished illustrator in his own right. When LIFE profiled the younger Wyeth in 1948, he was well along in his career, having sold out his first solo exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City a decade prior. His most famous painting, Christina’s World, was painted the same year the 1948 article appeared in LIFE, but is not mentioned.
LIFE would feature Wyeth, who died in 2009, and his paintings many times over the years, including extensive articles in 1953 and a 1965 profile that featured 22 pages of his favorite paintings and a first-person interview by Richard Meryman, who became a good friend of Wyeth's and went on to write a biography of the painter.
Of his most famous painting, which now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Wyeth said, “When I first painted it in 1948, Christina’s World hung all summer in my house in Maine and nobody particularly reacted to it. I thought, 'Boy, is this one ever a flat tire.'"
TIME Magazine, however, had a different take on the painting in a cover story on Wyeth in 1963, calling the work, “One of the most durable and disquieting images of 20th century America," and explaining the story behind the picture:
The most famous of these [subjects] is a woman named Christina Olson. He has painted eight temperas of her or her house, a decrepit three-story clapboard pile atop a knoll near the Maine seacoast. One of them, Christina's World, now 15 years old, is one of the most durable and disquieting images of 20th century America. Against the wall of landscape that leads up to her house, the crippled body of an ageless woman seems trapped, imprisoned by the very emptiness of the earth. Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, which hesitated before buying it in 1948 for $2,200, has repaid its investment 22 times over in the sale of reproductions.
Christina, who is crippled by polio , is one of Wyeth's few close friends. He judges people by their reactions to her. "I don't take some people to see her," says Wyeth, "because they won't understand." He fears that they will find her grotesque. Christina's house contains the anonymous leavings of years of confinement. The smell of burning oil, charred wood, fat cats and old cloth fills the air. Christina, now nearing 70, does not let anyone see how she moves about, stubbornly refuses to use a wheelchair. "Andy's a very good friend," she says. "I like to pose for him. He talks a great deal when he paints, but he doesn't talk nonsense." She does not talk nonsense either. Despite her painful loneliness, she is dignified, proud and intelligent.
None of Wyeth's portraits of Christina look alike; the artist injects his own humanity into the people and places around him. More than anything else that Wyeth paints, Christina's individuality and inner strength are a mirror-portrait of the artist himself. She is a touchstone of his compassion.
When it came to a portrait of Wyeth himself, however, TIME turned for its cover image to a different artist: his sister, Henriette Wyeth Hurd. The magazine also noted that Her Room (seen in the fourth slide in this gallery) had fetched the highest price paid by any museum for a work by a living artist at the time. The painting sold for $65,000.
In Celebration of Wyeth’s centennial, The Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine — which purchased Wyeth works from that 1944 Macbeth gallery show four years before the museum even opened to the public — is hosting a series of five exhibitions including a major watercolor show, Andrew Wyeth at 100, which runs through this year. Seen above is a small sampling of this comprehensive look at Wyeth’s work spanning his entire career from 1938 through 2008.