Architecture in Art | October 2020

Andrew Wyeth, Northern Point, 1950

By Erin Monroe, Robert H. Schutz, Jr., Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture 

Andrew Newell Wyeth (American, 1917-2009), Northern Point, 1950. Egg tempera on gesso panel. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund. Endowed by Kathryn and John P. Britton, 1950.603

Purchased by the museum in 1950, just months after it was completed, this painting of a view from atop a weathered house in Coastal Maine beat out an equally strong slate of “Architecture in Art” candidates, including paintings and decorative arts dating from the 1730s to midcentury. What was it about this work that drew so many votes? To me, the most apparent distinction is that it was the only example without any people. Not a single one. Architecture is the focal point, literally orienting us in a Northern direction. Wyeth might have been surprised by the response since he likely considered this painting as a portrait not a landscape. His portraits did not always include a sitter, rather, he frequently chose objects–a pair of shoes, an eating utensil, a shell–as stand-ins for friends and loved ones. In this case, the house belonged to a local fisherman he befriended named Henry Teel. Wyeth painted several views of the two-hundred-year-old house located on Teel’s Island. With this in mind, we might reconsider this as a symbolic representation of Henry. The house’s weathered rooftop, revealing years of being soaked by the gritty salt air and then cured by the sun’s rays, serves as a metaphor for the life of a fisherman.

Detail of Andrew Newell Wyeth, Northern Point, 1950

Perspective plays a huge role in making this painting more than a picturesque seascape. Wyeth presents us with a bird’s eye view looking out over the Penobscot Bay. We are precariously placed eye to eye with a most curious object–perhaps unfamiliar to many viewers–a lightning rod. The warm amber color of the glass orb contrasts with the rod’s black metal point. The tip pierces the air as if to burst an invisible bubble of emotional pressure, diffusing it into the atmosphere.

Detail of Andrew Newell Wyeth, Northern Point, 1950

The composition is also a study in texture. Wyeth must have had tremendous patience and tiny paintbrushes to convey the wood grain of the shingles, for example. Looking closely, you can almost make out the individual blades of seagrass and feel the rough, irregular surface of the rocks. And then there is the moody, overcast sky. Is the fog rolling in or burning off? As someone who grew up boating on Long Island Sound, I can readily recall how disoriented I felt when the slightest bit of fog decreased visibility and the coastline I knew by heart suddenly disappeared. This is one of my favorite paintings at the museum. I continually marvel at Wyeth’s technical abilities and impressive attention to detail.