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Wyeth daughter's Michener show has terrific art (and family drama)

"Magical & Real," a double retrospective of Henriette Wyeth and her husband, Peter Hurd, enriches and complicates the story of an artistic dynasty.

Detail from Henriette Wyeth’s “Two Children,” (1930-32). Oil on canvas.
Detail from Henriette Wyeth’s “Two Children,” (1930-32). Oil on canvas.Read moreJames A. Michener Art Museum

Just about the first thing you see when you enter "Magical & Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd" at the Michener Art Museum is a pair of terrific portraits of artists and their work.

They were painted by Henriette Wyeth, the eldest child of the illustrator and Brandywine school founder N.C. Wyeth. One of them, from 1939, shows her father, formidable and diffident, sitting in front of a large canvas he had recently completed of a scene in Maine. The other, from 1936, shows her husband, Peter Hurd, similarly avoiding eye contact, but looking earnest, tousled, and sexy (and a little bland), seated in front of his canvas showing the arid New Mexico landscape that was his home.

When you first see these pictures, which are part of an introductory gallery of family members, most of them painted by Henriette, you are likely to file them away in your mind as mere members of a cast of characters. Henriette's mother is here, too, as are two sisters, Ann and Carolyn, and their little brother Andrew — once as a teenager dressed in a Civil War uniform and again as a boy in a portrait with his older brother, Nat, the only nonartist in the family. (But Nat did marry the daughter of artist Howard Pyle, a label tells us, and as an engineer at DuPont invented the two-liter plastic soda bottle.)

But once you are finished with this very large exhibition, which contains many paintings that seem stylistically unrelated to these two portraits, you realize that these two canvases quietly epitomize some of the tensions, desires, ambivalence, insecurity, craft, and love evident throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The central figure here is Henriette, pronounced, as her father insisted, "the French way: on-ri-ETTE." The first of her generation, born in 1907 on her father's birthday, she overcame a bout of polio that made her right hand weak, and by the time she was 16, she was receiving commissions for major portraits. She partied with Jazz Age society, and sometimes the Fitzgeralds themselves, and was photographed as part of a project on "the 10 most beautiful girls in the United States."

Her portraits of 1920s women are bravura explorations of the cut and fabric of their clothes and toughness of their character. She seemed poised to be the leader of a new generation of Wyeths. Yet this is the first museum show ever dedicated to her work.

Strictly speaking, of course, this exhibition is a dual show, curated by Kirsten M. Jensen, chief curator at the Michener, and Sara Woodbury of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico. Peter Hurd (1904-84), who married Wyeth in 1929, was throughout most of his career the better-known artist, both for his depictions of the Southwest and for cover portraits and other works he did for Time, Life, and other magazines.

He taught N.C. and Andrew Wyeth egg tempera painting, which became Andrew's preferred medium. Hurd used it, along with a technique that involved a lot of scratching of the canvas, to convey a sense of dryness. You can see from his paintings why Henrietta was willing to trade the Brandywine Valley for his parched and prickly, if sometimes sublime, home.

The exhibition is organized as one show after another: first Wyeth, and then, somewhat less interestingly, Hurd.

Paintings within the paintings

One thing that Wyeth's paired portraits show is her virtuosity. By incorporating major works by her father and her husband into the portraits, she showed herself capable of re-creating the essence of each man's art. The paintings within the paintings represent dueling landscapes — one on the East Coast dominated by her father, one in the desert West, the home of her husband. Wyeth spent the entire decade of the 1930s drawn first to one and then the other.

It wasn't just about landscapes, though. The portraits are also a kind of love triangle. Henriette was daddy's girl, his first protégé. Hurd, who had come east to go to West Point and then to Haverford, apprenticed himself to N.C. Wyeth — so successfully that the elder artist was referring commissions to him. Both Wyeth and her husband were seeking the blessing of the patriarch, who had earlier broken off their engagement, an event that sent Hurd back home to reconnect with his regional roots.

These portraits were done at around the same time Henriette Wyeth was doing her paintings known as the fantasies. In these works, such as Two Children (1930-32), girls and young women seem to float entranced, along with oversize flowers, in a pastel fog. Critics in Philadelphia who reviewed a show of them here tended to see them as reflected nostalgia for lost youth, but they are scarier than that. They communicate a sense of beauty thwarted and dying, possibly numbed by some trauma.

Wyeth admired the work of the French artist Marie Laurencin but wrote, "I decided she's a little rotten and sweet, like degenerate marshmallows." Wyeth's fantasies are like that, too. But they are powerful. N.C. Wyeth hung one of the earliest and largest of them, The Picnic (1928), in a location that dominated his living room. It was rediscovered and restored and is in the show after being unseen for more than half a century.

Still, by the time Wyeth finally made the break with her father and moved to New Mexico full time, she was also ready to let go of the fantasies, which she called, "a retreat into a kind of world that was, perhaps, not very wholesome."

She helped Hurd on his commissions. She raised their three children. Meanwhile, Andrew took over her house and studio in Chadds Ford, and her status as the Wyeth to watch.

She continued to paint, with insight and dazzling technical skill. When she heard of her father's death on Oct. 19, 1945 — hit by a train while in a car with his 3-year-old grandson — she painted Iris. It's just flowers, and at first glance, fiercely realistic. But it has the same ecstatic intensity as the fantasies.

The Wyeths' story is a weird, endlessly fascinating family romance, sort of a combination of the House of Atreus and Duck Dynasty. "Magical & Real" enriches the narrative by introducing a fascinating character most of us don't know, and a worthwhile artist besides.