Fig. 1: Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009) Soaring, 1942-1950
Tempera on Masonite, 48 x 87 inches
Shelburne Museum
© Andrew Wyeth
Photograph by J. David Bohl

In 1950, Andrew Wyeth completed a large, dark, and unsettling painting of three vultures flying above the Pennsylvania countryside (Fig.1). He called the work Soaring. The product of an unusually long and somewhat tumultuous creative gestation, this magisterial view of scavengers in flight preoccupied the painter for the better part of a decade—a period that not only witnessed his emergence as an artist of national reputation but also coincided with the rise of a new morality brought about by the horrors of World War II and the pervasive tensions of the Cold War. Although Wyeth abandoned the effort more than once, the final painting is today recognized as an early landmark in a long and influential career. Like many of Wyeth’s best efforts—the contemporaneous Christina’s World of 1948 is but one example—Soaring is both accessible and ambiguous. It is elliptical to the point of being ominous. As a representational drama in an era that prized abstraction, the painting is an outlier that rewards close observation for what it reveals about mid-century American visual culture.

Under his father, N. C. Wyeth’s, tutelage, Andrew Wyeth drilled daily in drawing from life and casts and in depicting the landscape surrounding the family home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. In 1929, Andrew’s older sister Henriette married Peter Hurd (1904–1984), a fellow student of their father’s. In a moment of serendipity that had a profound impact on the trajectory of American art, Hurd tutored his young brother-in-law in the historical technique of painting in egg tempera. Armed with an age-old technique and an eye for verisimilitude, the younger Wyeth developed a signature style distinguished by meticulous brush handling.

Fig. 3: Grant Wood (1891–1942), Spring Turning, 1936
Oil on Masonite panel, 18½ x 40½ inches
Courtesy Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse. Art © Figge Art Museum, successors to the estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Extreme Perspective

Unlike the gravity-laden composition of Christina’s World, the point of view employed by Wyeth in Soaring places the observer high in the air, above and behind the highest vulture, effectively making us part of a complicated and unresolved visual drama. This extreme perspective—literally the bird’s-eye view—had long been the stuff of popular fascination by the time Wyeth began sketching in 1942, and it carries much ideological baggage. Alan Wallach, professor of art and art history emeritus at William & Mary, finds a genesis of this prospect in the early republic of the United States, specifically in paintings such as Thomas Cole’s seminal 1836 work, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow. Eschewing classical, eighteenth-century landscape conventions that discouraged painting from a high vantage point, Cole produced a painting of great authority and intensity.1

Fig. 2: L.R. Burleigh, Lithographer
Brandon, Vermont (detail), 1890
Watercolor and ink on paper, 15¼ x 28 inches
Shelburne Museum
Photography by J. David Bohl

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, a hovering perspective came to represent an idealized vision of progress in the popular imagination; burgeoning industrial cities and tidy towns were frequently depicted from a position above the factory bell tower or church steeple, as in an L. R. Burleigh lithograph of Brandon, Vermont (Fig. 2).2 The coming of the machine age cast aside such old-fashioned views but doubled down on altitude and acute angles, a way of seeing intensified by the seductive authority of tall buildings and the once-fantastic notion of flight. In 1935, the ability to view terra firma from above, the modernist architect Le Corbusier wrote, “is a new function added to our senses, it is a new standard of measurement.” 3

Celebrated at every turn, this “new standard of measurement” could be found throughout American visual culture by the late 1930s. Artists such as Grant Wood (1891–1942) reveled in the new point of view. Wood’s Spring Turning of 1936 (Fig. 3) offers a neatly defined earthiness that places the viewer in a paradoxically detached but intimate relationship with the rolling hills of the American Midwest. The new ability to recognize altitude in a comparatively flat and unbuilt land—to place oneself at a great height in the mind’s eye—is crucial to this equation, but the art of the matter is the artist’s skill at simulating the frisson experienced as the horizon slips and the viewer loses confidence in the information generated by the eye.

Fig. 4: Francis Colburn (1909–1984)
Granite Quarry, 1942
Oil on canvas, 28½ x 34 inches
Robert Hull Flemming Museum
University of Vermont

In New England, the painter Francis Colburn (1909–1984) completed Granite Quarry (Fig. 4) in 1942 just as Andrew Wyeth began sketching his protagonists in Soaring. The paintings share a vertiginous perspective and somber palette, but they part company to offer different resolutions. While Soaring hints at new, dark truths to be delivered from the air, Granite Quarry offers the cold realities of a life of hard labor, a dizzying panorama of endless work in this life under the low, blustery clouds of a northern autumnal sky. Neither presents a cheerful conclusion, yet it is in the comparison of the two paintings that Wyeth’s becomes dangerous.

The view from above, embedded in the expansive American worldview, encoded a far darker perspective by the time Wyeth completed Soaring in 1950. The heavens had become not simply militarized, but inescapably weaponized. The airplane—the very symbol of modernity—had been adopted for military purposes almost immediately upon its invention and realized a terrible apogee during World War II with day-and-night bombings of civilian population centers. As Wyeth sketched out his monumental painting in the safety of Chadds Ford, the larger world learned to fear bombers, and the complete dominance of American airpower became inescapably clear, a circumstance made complete by the detonation of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The ether itself now proved threatening.

Wyeth’s vulture is a highly symbolic avatar for an era of silent anxiety. Graceful of wingspan, it is, upon closer examination, an unlovely ornithological specimen optimized for scavenging (Fig. 5). The artist, intimate with the habits of the bird from his boyhood rambles near Chadds Ford, knew well its predilections for decomposing flesh. The message is clear: something sinister has happened on the ground. In this way, Wyeth’s birds coolly sublimate the tension of the era, rather than relieving it by depicting overt aggression. It is for this very coolness that Soaring initially captured critical attention, and it is part of why the painting carries such authority to this day.

Strange Painting

In 1943, at the height of World War II, the Museum of Modern Art set out to explore a lesser-known branch of the modern family tree with an exhibition entitled American Realists and Magic Realists. The project focused on “painters who by the means of an exact realistic technique try to make plausible and convincing their improbable dreamlike or fantastic visions.” 4 The exhibition and catalogue, organized and written by Dorothy Miller, Alfred Barr, and Lincoln Kirstein, proposed a line of descent from nineteenth-century American painters, including Thomas Cole, Edward Hicks, George Caleb Bingham, William Harnett, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer, through early modernists Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler to young contemporary practitioners such as Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, Paul Cadmus, Peter Hurd, and, tellingly, Andrew Wyeth, represented by a solitary ink, pencil, and gouache of a turkey buzzard.5 The exhibition demonstrates Wyeth’s position as a coming man within the New York art world and places him in the context of magical realism: a dark, representational genre that plumbed the shadows and terrors of life in the twentieth century.

Fig. 5: Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009)
Thurkey Buzzard Soaring (verso), ca. 1942
Graphite pencil on paper, 19⅜ x 29 inches
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Bequest of Maxim Karolik. © Andrew Wyeth
Photograph © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Modern Art’s need to establish an American genealogy for magical realism in 1943 came from a desire not only to explain challenging content, but also, more importantly, to launder European influences from a popular understanding of the surrealist-inspired genre. Lincoln Kirstein, writing in the introduction to the catalogue, saw Wyeth as keeping visual company with Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper, painters interested in a coolly observed American scene. “They have the dubious distinction of being known as the Frigidaire School,” writes Kirstein, “Sheeler with his slide-rule conquests and Edward Hopper’s lonely capture of our monotonous urban nostalgia.” 6 Kirstein moderated this critique, however, noting that “the chill of exact delineation is not necessarily harsh. There is often a tenderness of the surgeon’s capable hand, an icy affection acquired from a complete knowledge of the subject.” 7 Chill, icy, cool—the adjectives speak to an artist’s ability to capture alienation in paint.

Of the many ancestors proposed for Wyeth’s generation in American Realism and Magical Realism, none strike closer to home than Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Represented in the 1943 exhibition by The Morning Bell of 1871, Homer proved to be a multivalent role model for the latter-day painter (Fig. 6). First and foremost, Homer and Wyeth shared a long-standing commitment to the landscape and inhabitants of the coast of Maine. By the time N. C. Wyeth acquired land in Port Clyde, Maine, in 1920 and christened his summer home “Eight Bells” in honor of a painting by Homer, the latter had long become the stuff of legend, known for his existential life on the rugged coast at Prouts Neck. Andrew came of age with Homer as an archetype—a presence in his father’s household and creative consciousness.

Regard The Morning Bell and Soaring, however, and the kinship between the two paintings and their painters pulls into close focus. Homer, a man traumatized by his role as witness to the unprecedented bloodshed of the American Civil War, turned inward to conjure images of children and rural ways in New England, common symbols for a sundered nation as powerful as those rhymed by the schoolhouse poets of his day. The Morning Bell depicts four young women preparing to cross the pond of a small country mill just as northern textile manufacturing cities such as Lowell, Massachusetts, swollen by war production, developed into models for the new industrial age. It is a nostalgic painting, but it lacks sentiment, as Homer elects to erase the individual identities of the women going to work in favor of generalizing the figures. In doing so, he creates a sense of loneliness that pervades the scene. Wyeth, a keen observer of Homer’s oeuvre, understood the latter’s narrative mastery, an ability to spin a story without conclusion, to subvert the sentimental and create a darker truth for the modern era.

Fig. 6: Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Old Mill (The Morning Bell), 1871
oil on canvas, 24 x 38½ inches
Yale University Art Gallery
Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903

If Homer reads as a surrogate father for Wyeth, then Edward Hopper (1882–1967) and Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) stand in as honorary uncles. In an era that witnessed the sea change in American visual culture brought about by the rise of European modernism, Hopper and Sheeler straddled both sides of the Atlantic. They managed to be simultaneously representational and modern and were invariably understood to be American. Hopper came to prominence with images of old-fashioned buildings like that in House by the Railroad of 1925 and subdued interior scenes such as Office at Night from 1940.8 These two works, included in American Realists and Magical Realists, set the modern era apart from the previous century by adding a hoary patina to the mansard structure in the former and a cool sexual tension to the latter. Sheeler’s precise delineations make use of the geometry found in a new industrial landscape, especially in City Interior of 1936, the larger of his two contributions to the MoMA exhibition. A hovering quality unifies City Interior and Office at Night, an instability of perspective that makes them kin with Wyeth’s Turkey Buzzard—the precursor to Soaring.

In Soaring, Andrew Wyeth distilled the sublimated anxiety of mid-twentieth-century America. Long taken to be the work of a painter sui generis, the odd man out, works such as Soaring demonstrate Wyeth’s close connection to the world around him.9 In New York artistic circles and American visual culture, Wyeth played a central role in defining a cool, representational genre that enticed a popular audience with immediately accessible symbols and stories but remained profoundly unsettling over the long run. Soaring, part and parcel of a concerted effort on the part of artists, scholars, and dealers to create a canon of American art in the 1950s, came to Shelburne Museum as the anchor of an extraordinary collection that reflects one woman’s search for authenticity in an ever-changing world. With her keen eye, the founder of Shelburne, Electra Havemeyer Webb, identified Soaring as an extraordinary work—a dizzying Cold War drama of buzzards in flight that remains one of the great ominous images of the twentieth century.