Dead Cat Museum, Monhegan Island, 1999 signed 'J. Wyeth' (lower left) oil on canvas 60 x 40in (152.4 x 101.6cm)
This work is included in the database of the artist's work being compiled by the Wyeth Center at the William A. Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, Maine.
The residents of Maine and Mohegan Island in particular have long been the subjects for three generations of the Wyeth family. In the 1980s and 90s, Jamie produced a number of portraits of the local islanders including his engaging compositions of the young Orca Bates. In The Dead Cat Museum, the subject of this painting is Kyle Murdoch, the son of a Mohegan family who was close to the Wyeths.
The painting itself is indebted to the Wyeth family history going back to Jamie's grandfather and even his mentor Howard Pyle. To the degree that narrative comes into play in the painting, the present work is nearly Rockwellian in scope, but with a distinctive Wyeth edge. Here we see Jamie embracing the illustration side of his work. "Aware of his grandfather's angst about being declared only an "illustrator," Jamie Wyeth notes, "We're charged, my father and I, with being a pack of illustrators. I've always taken it as a supreme compliment. What's wrong with illustration? There's this thing now that illustrations are sort of secondary to art and I think it's a bunch of crap." (J.H. Stoner, A Closer Look, p. 33)
In the composition, Wyeth has captured the essence of pre-adolescence in a boy who is trying to take advantage of the summer tourist season. Only in the imagination of a child would the concept of dead cat or two be a draw for the visitors to the island. One is placed inside the head of the child who stumbled upon some dead cats and immediately assumed that it could be a moneymaking venture. Throw in some lemonade, an old Nintendo and a few mackerel and surely he would be set financially for the rest of the summer. "He remains among, and urges us to join, the "Children that we were..... captivated by anything that was more impressive and serious than real life." (C.Crosman, "James Wyeth," Wondrous Strange: The Wyeth Tradition, p. 129 as quoted in Alain-Fournuer, The Wanderer, p.96)
Kyle is presented as an unshod impresario attired in a tie and cape. The artist captures the gangliness of youth through his scrawny body and awkwardness of gesture. To heighten the slightly macabre quality of the subject, the boy is cast in shadow and placed within a backdrop where all the linear elements from the doorframe to the sign-- are off-kilter. By contrast, a crowd of tourists, bathed in bright sunlight, is filing past in the background. One cannot imagine that they would be lining up to view Kyle's modest museum. They are, most likely, headed for a different destination, but in the mind of a young boy they represent the audience and attention he so desperately craved.