Mental Floss

Catching the Heart of America: Andrew Wyeth

Andréa Fernandes

On Friday, January 16, 2009, the American painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) passed away. Known as the "painter of the people" and "America's artist," but also as a "Martha Stewart existentialist, " Wyeth had a lasting impact on the art world and on America. So, in remembrance of the man who "caught the heart of America," according to Richard Nixon, today's post features Andrew Wyeth and his 2003 painting, "The Carry."

1. The 247 paintings of Helga Testorff are Wyeth's most famous—and infamous—series. When the paintings were first revealed, they were said to be a "secret," even from Wyeth's wife and business manager, Betsy. To this day, there is still debate over just how much Betsy knew at the time; many people allege the "secrecy" was just a publicity stunt. Betsy admitted that she had seen a few of the works previously, but most were kept secret; they were Wyeth's way of "breaking loose" from her and were "genuinely upsetting" to their marriage. The scandal surrounding the series was referred to as "The Great Helga Hype."

2. In 1950, Wyeth had a brush with death while undergoing surgery for bronchiectasis. His heart began to fail, at which time he had a vision of Albrecht Dürer. Wyeth's artistic hero walked toward him with an extended hand, summoning Wyeth to him. He started toward Dürer, but Dürer then withdrew, causing Wyeth to pull back.

3. According to Wyeth's only grandchild, Victoria, the famous Helga (a lifelong friend of the family) was never paid for her modeling, even though she was supposed to have been. When Victoria discovered this error, she "went and found out where [Wyeth] had a gas charge in town and"¦ just charged gas to him for like four years."

4. Though Wyeth's painting "Christina's World" went on to become his single most famous painting, the artist himself didn't think too highly of it. When he sold it in 1948 to the Macbeth Gallery, he told his wife that he thought it was "a complete flat tire."

5. Over the course of his career, Wyeth was honored with 21 honorary degrees from academic institutions. He was the first painter to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), the first American elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts (1977) since John Singer Sargent, and the first living American elected to Britain's Royal Academy (1980). He also received the National Medal of Arts (2007) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1988).

6. Wyeth earned fame in pop culture as well as in academic and artistic circles. Charles Schulz often referenced Wyeth in Peanuts, and a Wyeth painting hung in the entry way of Mr. Rogers' studio home, visible when Mr. Rogers entered and exited. M. Night Shymalan based The Village on Wyeth paintings and even filmed the movie in Wyeth's hometown of Chadds Ford, PA, not far from the painter's studio.

A larger version of "The Carry" is available here. Fans should check out Andrew Wyeth's official site; the Portland Press Herald's video on Wyeth; the Philadelphia Museum of Art's podcasts from a Wyeth exhibition; and TIME's 1986 article on "Andrew Wyeth's Stunning Secret." "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at artist suggestions, with details of current exhibitions, or for sources or further reading.