PHILADELPHIA — Although some critics deride his art as drab and kitschy, Andrew Wyeth's melancholy paintings were praised by others as profound reflections of 20th Century alienation and existentialism.
Wyeth, who focused on the people and landscapes of Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley and coastal Maine in works such as "Christina's World," died in his sleep at his Philadelphia-area home early Friday. He was 91.
The death of Wyeth _ the most famous member of the three-generation family art dynasty _ will likely rekindle the debate over his contribution to American art.
"The squabbling is kind of art-world politics over who owns modernism," said curator Kathleen Foster of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who helped assemble the last major retrospective of his work at the museum in 2006.
Wyeth's pictures express for many the alienation of 20th century life and art, she said. Yet critics in the 1950s assailed him as a provincial reactionary next to New York abstract painters Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning.
"As we get farther from his work, we're going to recognize that he's just a different voice of modernism," Foster said. "This kind of quarreling over his status is going to fade, and he will be recognized as a great, great American artist."
Wyeth died at his home in suburban Chadds Ford, Pa., after a brief illness, according to Jim Duff, director of the Brandywine River Museum.
The son of famed painter and book illustrator N.C. Wyeth and the father of painter Jamie Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth gained wealth, acclaim and tremendous popularity during his lengthy art career.
Still, some critics viewed him as a facile realist, not an artist but merely an illustrator.
"One critic has called Wyeth the greatest living kitschmeister, while others have compared him to Edward Hopper or the Abstract Expressionists," said Milton Esterow, the editor and publisher of Artnews, which lavishly praised Wyeth's work in the 1950s but has since stayed on the sidelines. "I think the jury is still out."
The public voiced no such complaints, embracing his work over half a century and turning out in record numbers for the 2006 exhibit in Philadelphia.
The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, a converted 19th-century grist mill, includes hundreds of works by three generations of Wyeths.
"He was a man who had a deep understanding of the human condition," Duff said. "The world is a beautiful place but the world holds many threats."
It was in Maine that Wyeth found the subject for "Christina's World," his best-known painting. And it was in Pennsylvania that he met Helga Testorf, a neighbor in his native Chadds Ford who became the subject of intimate portraits that brought him millions of dollars and a wave of public attention in 1986.
The "Helga" paintings, many of them full-figure nudes, came with a whiff of scandal: Wyeth said he had not even told his wife, Betsy, about the more than 200 paintings and sketches until he had completed them in 1985.
Wyeth's world was as limited in scale, and as rich in associations, as "Christina's World," which shows a disabled woman looking up a grassy rise toward her farm home, her face tantalizingly unseen.
"Really, I think one's art goes only as far and as deep as your love goes," Wyeth said in a Life magazine interview in 1965.
Wyeth remained active in recent years and President George W. Bush presented him with a National Medal of the Arts in 2007.
"Laura and I deeply mourn the death of American painter, Andrew Wyeth," President Bush said in a statement.
His granddaughter, Victoria Wyeth, told The Associated Press in 2008 that he no longer gave interviews. "He says, 'Vic, everything I have to say is on the walls,'" she said.
Wyeth was born July 12, 1917, in Chadds Ford, the youngest of N.C. Wyeth's five children. One of his sisters, Henriette, who died in 1997, also became an artist of some note, and one of his two sons, Jamie, became a noted painter in his own right. His other son, Nicholas, became an art dealer.
In 1987-88, a traveling exhibit of works by N.C., Andrew and Jamie was seen by thousands in cities around the world.
N.C. Wyeth, the only art teacher Wyeth ever had, didn't always agree with his son's taste.
In a 1986 interview with the AP, Wyeth recalled one of the last paintings he showed to his father, who died in 1945. It was a picture of a young friend walking across a barren field.
"He said, `Andy, that has a nice feel of a crisp fall morning in New England.' He said, `You've got to do something to make this thing appeal _ if you put a dog in it, or maybe have a gun in his hand,'" Wyeth recalled.
"Invariably my father talked about my lack of color."
The low-key colors that made up his palette _ which art critic Dave Hickey described as mere "mud and baby poop" _ stem partly from his frequent use of tempera, a technique he began using in 1942. Unlike the oil paint used by most artists today, tempera produces a matte effect.
Wyeth had his first success at age 20, with an exhibition of Maine landscapes at a gallery in New York. Two years later he met his future wife, Betsy James.
Betsy Wyeth was a strong influence on her husband's career, serving as his business agent, keeping the world at bay and guiding his career choices.
It was Betsy who introduced Wyeth to Christina Olson. Wyeth befriended the disabled old woman and her brother, and practically moved in with them for a series of studies of the house, its environs and its occupants.
The acme of that series was "Christina's World," painted in 1948. It was Olson's house, but the figure was Betsy Wyeth.
Wyeth is survived by his wife and two sons. Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service is being planned at the Brandywine River Museum.
Associated Press Writer JoAnn Loviglio contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Brandywine River Museum: http://www.brandywinemuseum.org