04 December 2023

Meeting Andrew Wyeth at the thrift shop

If one is ever lucky enough to come across a small oil painting like this while checking out a thrift shop, and if one is clever enough to purchase it, then one is very, very lucky indeed. 

Like many, I only dream of finding a masterpiece in a thrift store, but as I'm not in the habit of scouring them, it's unlikely I'll find anything. But I do have friends who do, and their homes are full of interesting relics from these outings. 

In Europe and America, it's a great pastime to frequent antique fairs and flea markets which I used to do in France when I was younger but not with any real passion. Now, I'm too lazy, and besides, I don't want anything more to clutter my home. But when I read about this story, my envy grows like Pinocchio's nose. 

But I do know one success story. A friend in France picked up a smallish, dark, scruffy looking oil painting in an auction at the Hotel de Ventes in Aix, about fifty years ago. I think he paid about $US150 at the time. As he recounted it years later, all he seemed to think at the time was that it 'possessed a certain something' in it, but when he brought it home and cleaned it up bit he found a small signature in red on the bottom right corner; Renoir. He supposed that it was early, possibly of Renoir's mother. He showed it to Leo Marchutz, our mentor, who looked at it for a long while, then wisely asked, as if to no one: 

"Who else could have done this?" 

I can still this painting in my mind because he had several photos taken of it a few years later when I went to Sotheby's' in New York, to see what it might fetch there. That came to nothing. But I often saw it on a wall in his small home outside of Aix, and indeed with time, it had only seemed to grow more beautiful.
So, although I'm not a great fan of Andrew Wyeth's overall work, I respect him as a fellow artist. This picture, on the other hand, I find very striking, beautiful even the more time I spend looking at it.

Apparently, it was put up for auction recently at Bonham's and even sold for about 150K but the buyer (from Australia) reneged and never paid up. This happens a lot more than one would think in the smaller houses. That's a shame for the woman who bought it at the thrift shop because apparently being of modest means, that money would have changed her situation considerably.

Anyway, I really love this small picture not only because it possesses a particular luminosity in it that sets it apart from so much Painting, but also because there is a formal quality that harkens back to the early Renaissance. Here, there is light, not mere ‘lighting’ like employed for illustrations, but a real luminous set of relationships that create a unity of the whole picture. It is certainly also an upgrade to anything else I've ever seen of Andrew Wyeth's work which has always seemed to me to be more of a fine illustration than spontaneous Painting which I prefer.

As Leo had said about the Renoir, years earlier, I honestly don't imagine that there are (or ever were) too many painters in America capable of creating such complexity in an image.

It's a remarkable little painting.

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