Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
The painstaking realism of the painter Andrew Wyeth has made him one of the most popular American artists. The present portrait executed in 1970, entitled My Young Friend, shows a girl positioned slightly to the left of the composition against the flat background, dressed in a thick cable knit sweater and a racoon hat. The sitter is Sissy Spruance, a twenty-year old stable girl who worked on a ranch near the painter’s home in Brandywine, Pennsylvania. According to Wyeth, the girl had caught his attention when riding: “One day I spotted her riding bareback over the meadow, her braided hair flying and those two long strands falling over her face. She was wearing that raccoon skin hat which I’ve never seen any other girl wear, as if she was an animal, not a human being.”
The portrait is painted in light, earthy shades — the artist’s favourite range of colours — using the traditional medium of tempera on a masonite panel. Wyeth began to experiment with this procedure in the 1930s, but it was from the early 1970s onwards that he achieved matchless mastery. The artist himself confessed that “tempera is, in a sense, like building, really building, in great layers the way the earth itself was built.” By applying the paint in successive fine layers he achieves such precision in capturing detail and texture that he manages to create a lifelike atmosphere and sense of timelessness which infuse his own particular brand of realism with a magical and mysterious air.