Heaven and Earth
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This object is a member of the following groups (click any group name to view all objects in that group):Exhibitions: Currents/Crosscurrents
Andrew Wyeth first exhibited this picture of an abandoned church in a one-artist show at the Macbeth Gallery in 1945 under the title “Negro Church.” Shortly after purchasing it from the exhibition, the Addison's director, Bartlett Hayes, wrote the artist requesting permission to change the title to “Church Ceiling.”<sup>1</sup> In agreeing to the change, Wyeth informed Hayes that the church was known locally as Mother Archie's Church, after the preacher who had founded it in the early 1800s. The resulting variety of possible titles led to a contest in March 1946. Phillips Academy students were asked to describe in “twenty-five words or less” the reason for their choice of one of three titles: “Negro Church,” “Church Ceiling,” or “Mother Archie's Church.”<sup>2</sup> Alternative suggestions were also welcome. While the Addison's archives lack any record of the outcome, one must assume that the winning entry made a persuasive case for the title that the painting now bears: <i>Mother Archie's Church</i>.
Like all of Wyeth's paintings, this early work depicts a place with which the artist is intensely familiar. The octagonal stone church, now reduced to its foundations, was located within walking distance of his studio in Chadd's Ford, the Pennsylvania town where he has lived all of his life. As a boy he often wandered over to the church on Sundays “to hear the chatter of Negro songs and voices rise up from the building during services.”<sup>3</sup>
Often the impulse to paint the scenery around him hits Wyeth unexpectedly—“a sort of accident in the right spot.”<sup>4</sup> According to Thomas Hoving, "Chance, the odd happenstance, the abrupt appearance of life where before there was stillness or death is of critical importance to Wyeth the painter.”<sup>5</sup> This is borne out in Wyeth's account of how he came to paint <i>Mother Archie's Church:
Late last Spring, 1945 a shower caught me and I ducked in the back window of this old building. The big room was cluttered with the remains of long church benches, dried palm leaves, a faded purple Bible on a stand and an elaborate square piano. Suddenly a whirring sound broke the silence as a pure white pigeon flew in the broken window and roosted on a stove pipe with a dark grey blue pidgeon which I hadn't even noticed before. The white pigeon against the damp grey plaster ceiling was startling in its beauty and so I was first fired to do a tempera to somehow put across the feeling I had of the lush Spring landscape (as seen through the window) outside that momentarily gave up the immaculate white pidgeon so that it could also seek shelter in the musty beauty of the old church.</i><sup>6</sup>
The sudden appearance of the white bird allowed Wyeth to discover something new in a familiar place. The painting is thus a combination of fresh impressions and old memories—both deeply personal and subjective.
At first glance, Wyeth's private feelings and associations seem masked. His realistic style and his use of the exacting and time-consuming medium of egg tempera are means of avoiding what he himself says is the "messiness" of his true nature.<sup>7</sup> Yet his paintings are not merely records of fact. In creating his compositions, Wyeth consciously chooses elements that allow the viewer to catch a glimpse of his personal responses. One need not know of the artist's experience that spring afternoon to sense his excitement at witnessing the bird fly into the abandoned building, an excitement conveyed in the striking contrast between the vivid green seen through the window and the bleached-out gray of the interior. Similarly, it is not necessary to know the history of the church to sense the presence of past occupants, as epitomized by the rusty stovepipe and extinguished oil lamp.
The simplification of the scene to essential details is evidence of a strong abstract element often overlooked in Wyeth's work. Modernist devices such as the unusual angle and cropping disorient the viewer and endow this seemingly naturalistic image with an air of otherworldliness. Denied any firm grounding, the viewer, like a displaced spirit, looks down at the window while also looking up at the ceiling. The psychological tension is heightened by elements such as the window and the cracks in the plaster ceiling that bleed off the edges of the painting, simultaneously drawing the eye into and out of the composition.
The painting's disconcerting effects lead the viewer away from the particular to the universal. Compositional elements become symbols for the ephemeral as well as the perennial nature of the world. Finding larger truths in the ordinary is a hallmark of Wyeth's art, reflecting his strong belief that the “commonplace is the thing, but it's hard to find. Then if you believe in it, have a love for it, this specific thing will become a universal.”<sup>8</sup>
Allison Kemmerer, <i>Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue</i> (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 499-500
1. Bartlett Hayes to Andrew Wyeth, 2 February 1946, Addison Gallery Archives.
2. <i>The Phillipian</i>, 70 (6 March 1946), p. 1.
3. Wyeth to Hayes, 13 February 1946, Addison Gallery Archives.
4. Quoted in Thomas Hoving, introduction to <i>Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography</i> (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), p. 11.
6. Wyeth to Hayes, 13 February 1946. This letter was written in response to Hayes's question about the resemblance of the white pigeon to traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit. While Wyeth did not directly address Hayes's question, he responded by emphasizing the pedestrian aspects of the painting while avoiding its religious aspects.
7. Richard Meryman, "Andrew Wyeth: An Interview," in Wanda M. Corn, <i>The Art of Andrew Wyeth</i> (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1973), p. 55.
8. Ibid., p. 103.
This object was included in the following exhibitions:Temperas and Water colors by Andrew Wyeth, William Macbeth Gallery (William Macbeth, Inc.), 10/29/1945 - 11/17/1945
Andrew Wyeth, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 4/8/1947 - 4/20/1947
Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture [Exposition d 'Art Américain Contemporain], Galerie Giroux, 9/3/1947 - 8/3/1948
Joint exhibition of Andrew Wyeth and Merle James, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 7/1/1949 - 7/30/1949
Contemporary Painting from Great Britain, United States and France, The Art Gallery of Toronto, 11/10/1949 - 12/26/1949
American Painting 1950, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 4/22/1950 - 6/11/1950
Contemporary Paintings from the Addison Gallery, Andover, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 11/8/1950 - 11/19/1950
Paintings in Oil, Watercolor, and Tempera by Members of the Wyeth Family, The Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, 1/8/1951 - 1/29/1951
Fine Arts Festival, Kansas State College, Kansas State College, 4/12/1951 - 4/22/1951
Paintings and Drawings by Andrew Wyeth, Currier Museum of Art, 7/7/1951 - 9/8/1951
Andrew Wyeth and Waldo Peirce, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 6/5/1952 - 6/21/1952
Variations...Three Centuries, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/8/1954 - 2/15/1954
Five Painters of America: Louis Bouche, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Charles Sheel, Worcester Art Museum, 2/17/1955 - 4/3/1955
Scope in Collecting [25th Anniversary Exhibition], Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/19/1956 - 12/24/1956
Wyeth Exhibition, Hilson Gallery, Deerfield Academy, 5/6/1957 - 6/6/1957
Project ELAI: Exhibition of Living American Artists to Israel, American Federation of Arts, 1/28/1959 - 11/28/1959
The Museum and Its Friends, Whitney Museum of American Art, 3/5/1959 - 4/12/1959
Andrew Wyeth - A Retrospective Exhibition of Temperas and Watercolors, Charles Hayden Memorial Library, Hayden Gallery, MIT, 11/9/1960 - 12/4/1960
Art in American History, Addison Gallery of American Art, 7/22/1962 - 10/28/1962
Andrew Wyeth: Temperas, Water Colors and Drawings, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 11/2/1962 - 12/9/1962
Seven Decades, 1895-1965: Cross Currents in Modern Art, Public Education Association, 4/26/1966 - 5/21/1966
Andrew Wyeth: Temperas, Water Colors, Dry Brush, and Drawings, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 10/5/1966 - 6/4/1967
Wyeth's World, an Exhibition of Watercolors, Temperas and Drawings by Andrew Wy, Wichita Art Museum, 9/15/1967 - 11/15/1967
The Wonder of Andrew Wyeth, The Oklahoma Museum of Art, 12/3/1967 - 12/24/1967
The Works, Addison Gallery of American Art, 11/7/1969 - 2/22/1970
Andrew Wyeth, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 7/17/1970 - 9/6/1970
Andrew Wyeth Paintings and Drawings, St. Paul's School, 4/4/1971 - 5/2/1971
Works of Andrew Wyeth, National Museum of Modern Art, 4/6/1974 - 6/30/1974
Nothing is Certain But Change, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/18/1975 - 5/18/1975
Andover Garden Club Exhibition, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/10/1980 - 4/13/1980
Masterworks from the Collection: 50th Anniversary Exhibition, Addison Gallery of American Art, 5/9/1981 - 6/14/1981
Masterworks of American Art from the Addison Gallery Collection, Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Inc., 10/6/1981 - 10/31/1981
Andover Garden Club, Addison Gallery of American Art, 11/5/1982 - 11/7/1982
The New England Eye: Master American Paintings from New England School, College , Williams College Museum of Art, 9/9/1983 - 11/13/1983
Andrew Wyeth, William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, 7/7/1988 - 10/17/1988
Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/13/1996 - 7/31/1996
Framework: American Pictures and Frames, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/16/1999 - 4/4/1999
Tracing the Sublime, Addison Gallery of American Art, 12/16/2003 - 3/21/2004
Andrew Wyeth: Early Watercolors, Currier Museum of Art, 10/8/2004 - 11/20/2005
80 @ 80 , Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/15/2011 - 12/31/2011
The Wyeths: A Family Legacy, Fenimore Art Museum, New York State Historical Association, 5/25/2013 - 9/2/2013
Heaven and Earth, Addison Gallery of American Art, 2/7/2015 - 4/5/2015
Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, Brandywine River Museum of Art, 6/24/2017 - 1/15/2018
Currents/Crosscurrents: American Art, 1850–1950, Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/16/2020 - 3/7/2021
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