Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) Breakup 20 x 28in (Painted in 1994.)

This lot has been removed from the website, please contact customer services for more information

Lot 21
Andrew Wyeth
Breakup 20 x 28in

US$ 1,500,000 - 2,500,000
£ 1,100,000 - 1,900,000

American Art

18 May 2016, 14:00 EDT

New York

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
signed 'A. Wyeth' (lower right)
tempera on panel
20 x 28in
Painted in 1994.


  • Provenance
    The artist.
    Private collection, North Carolina, 1994.
    Gift to the present owner, 2006.

    This lot is being sold with a pair of bronze hands cast from a mold of the artist's hands, by Laran Bronze Foundry, Inc., Chester, Pennsylvania, circa 1985-86, which he used to render the present work. The hands were a gift to the present owner from Betsy James Wyeth who also retained a pair for the family.

    Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Brandywine River Museum, Andrew Wyeth Gallery, May 16-November 17, 1994.
    Greenville, South Carolina, Greenville County Museum of Art, and elsewhere, Andrew Wyeth - America's Painter, June 18, 1996-Februrary 16, 1997, n.p., no. 49.
    Rockland, Maine, William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, and elsewhere, Wondrous Strange - The Wyeth Tradition - Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, James Wyeth, June 21, 1998-February 21, 1999, p. 114, illustrated.
    Jackson, Mississippi, Mississippi Museum of Art, and elsewhere, Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends, February 3-December 31, 2001, p. 151, illustrated.
    Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Brandywine River Museum, Works by Andrew Wyeth and Golden Impressions by Donald Pywell, November 28, 2003-January 11, 2004.
    Atlanta, Georgia, High Museum of Art, and elsewhere, Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic, November 12, 2005-July 16, 2006, pp. 23, 55, 58, 201, pl. 78, illustrated.
    New York, Adelson Galleries, Andrew Wyeth: Seven Decades, November 18, 2014-December 20, 2014, n.p., illustrated.

    G.G. Colt, "Wyeth - Face to Face," Life, March 1997, n.p., illustrated.
    M. Barlow, Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, Oxford, England, 2011, n.p.

    This tempera will be included in Betsy James Wyeth's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.

    Andrew Wyeth, born in 1917, was the son of the beloved illustrator N. C. Wyeth. From a young age, Wyeth was tutored at home by his father, who naturally introduced the child to literature, poetry and music. By the age of six, Wyeth proved to be skilled at drawing and principally captivated by the picture books and related imagery his father presented him, including the works of N.C.'s teacher, the prominent American illustrator, Howard Pyle. At the age of fifteen, Wyeth began formal training under his father that continued for the next two years. Under this strict tutoring, the artist produced numerous drawings, from still lifes to figure studies. This period of study was both comprehensive and immersive; Wyeth visited numerous museums and public exhibitions as well as dutifully studied art history books. Apart from the curriculum encouraged by N.C., Wyeth explored his own subjects of inspiration, including the woods and cornfields that surrounded his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and further developed his skill for observation and exact draftsmanship.

    His early watercolors of Maine observed an Impressionistic quality and were referred to as his "blue sky" period. Executed in his early twenties, such works consisted of deep, exaggerated tones, using blues, purple, and brown. Becoming almost immediately popular, these landscapes were soon exhibited at Macbeth Gallery in New York. The artist soon evolved his signature style, one as unique as it was personal. His color palette shifted to mostly earthy tones, and his compositions focused on figures and landscape. While he endured traditional artistic training during his formative years, he later abandoned much of the confines of that formality, and rarely acknowledged the academic techniques involved in producing his art. Wyeth became primarily concerned with light, atmosphere, and the emotional impact of telling his story.

    A common element that we see in Wyeth's artwork is his occupation with the psychological. This theme is most visible in his self-portraits; Breakup, as well as other accomplished works, provide deeper meaning to the objects and places represented. It is through these varied self-portraits that we begin to understand how Wyeth viewed himself as an artist and individual.

    The present work centers two hands which emerge from a fragmented landscape worn by winter. The hands pictured are those of the artist, painted from bronze casts. Heavy ice and snow have collected along the river bank and parted to reveal the frozen earth beneath. The color palette of predominantly brown, tan and white is typical of the artist's Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, pictures, and had for years characterized Wyeth's depictions of the region. In this self-portrait Wyeth illustrates his hands, ghostlike after having survived the ravages of winter. Yet, in stark contrast to their ghostlike presence, the hands appear almost lifelike perched atop a glowing white ice floe. With great detail, Wyeth studied the landscape, creating a hyper-realistic depiction, which transports the viewer to the year of 1999, the coldest on record, when the Brandywine River was frozen solid. As the season's freeze came to an end, Wyeth illustrated the thaw as thick masses of ice broken into floes, razor sharp, migrating down river. The leaves and earth seen suspended in the layers of ice appear as fossils from the past, remnants of a previous season which seems long-forgotten.

    Winter was one of Wyeth's favorite seasons. For all of its cold and lonesome qualities, Wyeth found comfort in this time of year, and used the wintertime as an outlet to express emotions of melancholy and defeat through his pictures. The artist wrote, "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn't show." (W.M. Corn, The Art of Andrew Wyeth, San Francisco, California, 1973, p. 66)

    The natural behaviors of winter, the gradual building and layering of thick masses of nature, imitate the technique required when painting with tempera, the medium used in the present work. Wyeth once explained, "Tempera is something with which I build—like building in great layers the way the earth was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness." (T. Hoving, Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography, New York, 1995, p. 11) The layered ice and frozen earth illustrated in Breakup echo an exhausted effort in creating such a vivid, detailed work of great psychological and geographic resonance. His handling of tempera, so deliberate and laborious, further elevate the work to one of great achievement and personal vision.

    The artist's wife, Betsy Wyeth, had in 1976 commissioned the hand surgeon Dr. Adrian E. Flatt to make a cast of her husband's hands in fiberglass. The hands were later cast in bronze by Laran Bronze Foundry, Inc., in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1985-86. These bronze hands sat on a windowsill in Wyeth's home overlooking the nearby Brandywine River. Through this window, he would view the bronze sculptures against the backdrop of the Brandywine Valley, producing the subject and inspiration for this self-portrait.

    The bronze hands we see illustrated in Breakup are not absolute portraits of the artist's physical anatomy, but exist rather as a symbol of the artist's life and work, as further suggested by the permanent memorial created by these sculptures. These hands are seen removed from a body, yet still appear to be alive, almost emerging from the water beneath, leaving fingerprints in the snow which signal their weight and movement. The artist recreates the sculpture hands as a lasting symbol of his identity, seen here as living objects, yet detached from the controlling human mind. The artist acknowledged his preference for feeling disconnected from his subjects, specifically when producing self-renderings. Portraiture was a difficult subject for him to master, as evidenced by one admission: "I wish I could paint without me existing—that just my hands were there." (J. Wilmerding, "Andrew Wyeth's Language of Things," Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic, Atlanta, Georgia, 2005, p. 53) Furthermore, he confessed that his creativity was at its best when he felt removed or disconnected from himself. His body was a reminder of his human state, and once removed from it, his mind was allowed clarity and artistic freedom.

    Comparatively, The Revenant, completed in 1949, is a rare self-portrait by the artist, as it is straight-forward in format. We see a three-quarter view of the artist's body, and he stares directly at the viewer. This work is unique for this reason. Wyeth quite often avoided direct contact if he had an audience during his artistic process, and behaved similarly with his models. Many of his subjects glance sideways, seemingly removed from him and unaffected by the observer. Seen in a whitewashed interior, the artist wears a similarly faded ensemble, and his face is obscured. Either fading away or resurrected as a ghost, he appears almost as quickly as he is soon to disappear. The artist once remarked, "When I'm alone in the woods, across the fields, I forget all about myself. I don't exist... but if I'm suddenly reminded of myself, that I'm me—then everything falls to pieces." (Ibid, p. 53) Wyeth has illustrated here this same conflict, appearing as a haunting reminder of himself, much like the resurrected hands in Breakup. In The Revenant, he fades in and out between self-consciousness and absence.

    Wyeth was an artist who favored communication through symbols and metaphors. Contrary to the example presented by The Revenant, he rarely used his own likeness in his self-portraits. John Wilmerding's essay in Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic sheds light on this unique device: "As long as he imagines himself as a thing or a part of a landscape, Wyeth can maintain the fiction that he is an invisible seer. Perhaps he so rarely painted conventional self-portraits because to do so would entail looking into a mirror, thus shattering his cherished concept of himself as a concealed onlooker." (Ibid, p. 55)

    Another symbolic portrait which further explores Wyeth's psyche is Trodden Weed, completed shortly after The Revenant, in 1951. Compositionally, Trodden Weed employs a similar format to Breakup. The artist's boots are pictured in motion walking through a field. This down-cast view shows a detailed landscape; each blade of grass appears crushed and flattened under heavy soles. The work was painted after the artist underwent a dangerous operation during which he almost died. The delicate grass so quickly destroyed underfoot pays homage to the fragility of life, and surely to the trauma that occupied him after surgery. Both Trodden Weed and Breakup address different stages of the artist's life when he was similarly consumed by his physical health and grander ideas of mortality.

    The artist Mary Rothko once noted that Wyeth's artwork is "about the pursuit of strangeness." This strangeness is what made the artist an admired voice among the emerging twentieth century realist painters. These haunting self-portraits, as well as the broader catalogue of the artist's work, document his life story. It is with careful attention that we dissect the symbols and figures he so deliberately illustrates. There is something complex about even the simplest of forms. Nothing is as it seems.

    Image © 2016 Andrew Wyeth/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    A copyright protected image is being provided in reference to Bonhams New York American Art Sale, May 18, 2016. Reproduction(s) of the image must be accompanied by the copyright credit line: © 2016 Andrew Wyeth/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Please note, journalist wishing to use copyright protected images for any manner other than timely reporting and exhibition/auction review must first clear rights with ARS. Artists Rights Society 536 Broadway . Fifth Floor . New York, NY 10012 (P) 1.212.420.9160 (F): 1.212.420.9286

Saleroom notices

  • Please note the updated provenance for this lot: Provenance The artist. with Frank E. Fowler, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Private collection, North Carolina, acquired from the above, 1994. Gift to the present owner, 2006.
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) Breakup 20 x 28in (Painted in 1994.)
Auction information

This auction is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future auctions, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this auction, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Arms & Armor, Coins and Medals, Motor Cars, Motorcycles, Wine & Whisky

27.5% on the first $12,500 of the hammer price;
25% of the hammer price of amounts in excess of $12,500 up to and including $600,000;
20% of the hammer price of amounts in excess of $600,000 up to and including $6,000,000;
and 14.5% of the hammer price of any amounts in excess of $6,000,000.

Payment Notices

Payment for purchases may be made in or by (a) cash, (b) cashier's check or money order, (c) personal check with approved credit drawn on a U.S. bank, (d) wire transfer or other immediate bank transfer, or (e) Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover credit, charge or debit card for returning clients only. Please note that the amount of cash notes and cash equivalents that can be accepted from a given purchaser may be limited.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licenses please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.