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    African Americans who sat for Andrew Wyeth

    When I moved to Philadelphia some years ago, a colleague at the newspaper told me that African Americans had sat for artist Andrew Wyeth, and that he’d given them some of his paintings.

    I was fascinated and wanted to both hear and tell their stories. He knew of some of the people, he said, and would try to get them to talk to me. That never materialized, and over the years my interest receded.

    But it was pricked recently when I came across at auction a 1968 book titled “Andrew Wyeth” by Richard Meryman. The book still had its dust jacket but it was worn. The inside pages, though, had fared a bit better.

    Andrew Wyeth's AFrican American subjects

    Willard Snowden in “Grape Wine,” 1966.

    As I flipped through the pages, I saw images of African Americans in natural settings. These were some of the people whom I had hoped to meet those many years ago. I kept turning and turning the pages, each revealing some of the sweetest photos of them. The images were a far far cry from what I normally saw of African Americans from the early to mid-20th century.

    Wyeth depicted them as he did the white subjects of his paintings – as plain folks. He drew many of them over and over, so much so that he had enough works to compel him and his wife Betsy to mount a small exhibit in 1999 at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, which has a large collection of art by the Wyeth family. The exhibit was expanded a few years later with paintings from other collections – for a total of 74 original works – and was shown at three museums in the South.

    “I think they are the most subtle people to understand,” Wyeth said of African Americans in the book. “That’s why I think they’ve been missing in painting.”

    Andrew Wyeth's AFrican American subjects

    Willard Snowden in “Monologue,” 1965.

    Wyeth’s home in Chadds Ford was not far from a community called Little Africa, an Underground Railroad stop operated by Quakers (A carriage house at Oakdale farm held a secret room to hide enslaved Africans). At the center of the community was Mother Archie’s Church, a former Quaker schoolhouse that was purchased by Lydia Archie in 1891. An ordained preacher in the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, she died in 1932, and the church was later dissolved.

    As a child, Wyeth played with the descendants of the enslaved Africans who had made their home in Little Africa. When he was grown, they sat while he painted (and paid) them, starting in the 1930s.

    Some people and images from the auction book:

    Andrew Wyeth's AFrican American subjects

    A young Cathy Hunt with her grandfather Alexander Chandler in “Granddaughter,” 1956. At right is Cathy at 14 in “Day at the Fair,” 1963.

    Alexander Chandler, who was blind, always sat outside his daughter’s house, dozing off, and moving as the sun moved so he could keep warm. His granddaughter, Cathy, would mess with him by asking him questions to wake him up. Wyeth later painted her as a 14-year-old in a new dress bought especially for the fair.

    Andrew Wyeth's AFrican American subjects

    Tom Clark napping in his bed in “Garret Room,” 1962.

    Tom Clark was a tall stately man who was a fixture in the community. Wyeth painted him napping, his long frame looking as weary and fragile as the bed he laid in.

    Andrew Wyeth's AFrican American subjects

    “Mother Archie’s Church,” 1945. The church had closed a decade earlier.

    Willard Snowden was a drifter who moved into the top floor of Wyeth’s studio and took up residence. He was the subject of many of Wyeth’s paintings.

    Mother Archie’s Church was shown in one of his first paintings – titled “Burial at Archie’s” – in 1933 when he was 16 years old. He painted the church often, up until 1985 when it was in ruins.

    “So many people, when they think the word ‘Negro’,” Snowden said in the book, “they get the idea of some silly bunch of jokes, damn foolishness. Mr. Wyeth sees what I as a Negro can see – that thing that’s distinct, very distinct. It’s not a funny-looking something with great big lips, a lot of little curls on his head. He’s painting a real live person. He’s using his own head, you see. Most people are influenced by what others have to say.”

    Said Wyeth, “Most people look at a thing and there it sits. They just fill in the details without passion.”

    Andrew Wyeth art books

    Andrew Wyeth’s book from the auction, left, and the “Close Friends” exhibit catalog.

    The 2001 exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson was titled “Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends” with an accompanying catalog of 100 color reproductions depicting the African Americans he painted – who they were, where they lived and how they lived.

    The exhibit also included nude paintings of an African American woman named Senna Moore, and they followed a tradition of nudes (in 1948, he painted a nude of an African American woman named Evelyn Smith who lived in Little Africa). He released his nude paintings of his white neighbor Helga in 1986; he had been secretly painting her for 15 years. The Moore paintings were done in the late 1990s.

    The Wyeths insisted that the exhibit tour the South in areas with large African American populations. From Jackson, it went to Greenville, SC, and Savannah, GA.

    Wyeth apparently saw these folks as not only neighbors but friends. “They were easy friendships,” he said in the “Close Friends” catalog. “They posed whenever I asked them to. How pure it seemed, to be able to paint where they lived. It was not studio painting.”

    He gave them the working drawings of his paintings of them.

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    3 Comments

    1. I came across the book in your article at GoodWill in Covington Georgia. As I flipped through it, I noticed the black figures. So I purchased it. Am overjoyed to learn a lil more of the history. I was aware of Wyeth and the his paintings of Helga. So glad to learn of Senna and Evelyn. You are doing such good work.

      katrina

    2. Hello,

      Thank you for this awesome story! I stumbled upon it as I was searching for Andrew Wyeth’s Close Friends exhibit information today. I saw the Close Friends exhibit at the Greenville county Museum of Art back in 2001.
      We took our teenage daughters while on vacation. These works have remained dear to me over the years.
      I was looking at a postcard that I have of the “Granddaughter (1956) and decided to see if I could find this exhibit possibly touring again. The abundant resource I found your article to be was so comforting for my quest.

      Sincerely thank you,

      Carol

      • Thanks, Carol. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog post. It’s always a pleasure for me to write about such interesting topics. I’m still hoping to find a family whose relatives were the subject of his works.

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