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Olson House stands on top of a hill in Cushing, a small community on the coast of Maine that was for many years the summer retreat of one of America's best-loved artists, Mr Andrew Wyeth. To approach this isolated farmstead on foot and catch sight of it as it rises up in the distance, its clapboard sidings weathered stone-grey by the salt air, is to experience one of the iconic perspectives of American art - one immortalised by Mr Wyeth in his 1948 masterpiece, "Christina's World". This painting, which now resides in the MoMA's permanent collection, is by far his best-known work, but it's by no means the only time that he was moved to paint here. This old house was his "garden at Giverny" - a place of endless inspiration to which he would consistently find himself drawn back.

A long-time friend of the Olson family, Mr Wyeth often took to using disused attic rooms as makeshift gallery space, and it was while exploring one such room in the summer of 1947 that he was inspired to paint another of his famous works: "Wind from the Sea". In the stifling midday heat, he pried open a window that had been left shut for many years. He described the moment: "A west wind filled the dusty, frayed lace curtains and the delicate crocheted birds began to flutter and fly." The finished work captured the beauty of the billowing, crocheted drapes, the distant landscape, and the frame and mullions of the window with near-mathematical precision.

Mr Wyeth photographed by Mr Henri Cartier-Bresson, in the studio, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1962. Photo: © Henri Cartier-Bresson/ Magnum Photos

This painting was the first fully realised instance of a window as the subject of his art, a recurring theme explored in detail in Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In. This new exhibition at Washington DC's National Gallery of Art will showcase around 60 works selected from a body containing more than 300 that feature windows as their primary subject, in an attempt to offer a fresh perspective on a reclusive artist whose work was the subject of as much critical ire as it was public adulation.

"Wyeth was written off by many critics as quaint or out of touch," explains Ms Nancy Anderson, curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery. "Because he created such realistic images at a time when the focus was on abstract expressionism - especially in the US - he was seen as a 19th-century painter, little more than a gifted copyist who would just sit down and simply record what he saw." Aided by access to preliminary sketches and hundreds of hours of recorded conversations between Mr Wyeth and his biographer, Ms Anderson and the staff of the National Gallery intend to argue that this was far from the case. "Wyeth's work was deceptive," she continues. "What's clear from his preliminary studies is that he was an artist who would return to the same subject again and again, reducing and distilling it down to its absolute essence. This isn't normally what you'd expect of a realist painting, where it's the detail that's being celebrated. And he'd often talk about this one tape, saying, 'I'm an abstract painter - they just don't get it.'

  • Mr Wyeth in the studio, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1948.
  • Photo: Arnold Newman/ Getty Images

"He saw 'Wind from the Sea', for example, as a symbol for Christina Olson - the subject of 'Christina's World', who suffered from polio. He was fascinated by the dichotomy of the soft lace curtains and the very rigid window frame. The rigidity was her stoicism in the face of her disability; the lace curtains were her femininity." Ms Anderson also points to Mr Wyeth's solitary nature, and to the constraints of his chosen medium, egg tempera - an incredibly time-consuming method that demands long periods spent in front of the canvas - as further explanations for the deeply embedded personal and private symbolism in his work.

And there was death beneath the surface, too: the window from which he painted "Wind from the Sea" overlooks the Olson family cemetery, where Mr Wyeth himself expressed a desire to be buried, and ultimately was. "At one point during conversations with his biographer," says Ms Anderson, "he said that his work would not be understood in his lifetime." Of course, whether this fiercely reclusive artist ever really wanted to be understood is a different matter. If anything, the consistency he displayed across a remarkably long and productive career would suggest that he was rather indifferent to the critical reaction to his work. But an artist whose work polarised the critics as his did will always prompt discussion; a career as prolific and successful as his will always, in the end, be reassessed. For Mr Wyeth, who died five years ago at the age of 91, that reassessment is already well underway.

Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In runs from 4 May-30 November, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. nga.gov

Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER

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