1917-2009 | AmericanSurf
Signed "Andrew Wyeth" (lower right)
Drybrush watercolor on paper
Andrew Wyeth is among the most highly regarded and recognizable American artists of the 20th century, and his portraits of Helga are undoubtedly the most famous of his career. From 1971 until 1985, Wyeth composed approximately 240 drawings, sketches and paintings that record an intensive study of Helga Testorf, a German immigrant who was his neighbor. Collectively, The Helga Pictures
represent one of the most complete and poignant studies of a single subject ever made by a painter, contemporary or otherwise. When they were first revealed to the public in 1986 in a TIME
magazine article, they were an instant sensation. Since then, they have been eagerly collected by public institutions and private individuals alike, making them an exceptional rarity on the market.
What made the revelation of The Helga Pictures
so dramatic was the fact that they were created in nearly complete privacy. Wyeth first met Helga in 1970; she was the nurse of Karl Kuerner, a neighbor of Wyeth's in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania who was also a frequent subject of his works. Wyeth formed a bond with Helga, creating his first portrait of her in 1971. What followed was 15 years of intensive artistic exploration that remains unprecedented in the history of art, and which was done in secrecy — even from Wyeth's wife. It was only after he contracted a serious illness and feared his own death that he revealed the existence of the works to the world in 1986. They caused a media frenzy — over 200 new works from an artist of Wyeth's caliber and popularity took the art world by storm.
Wyeth's stark, realist style was well suited to capturing the Teutonic features of the serious Helga. Depicted in austere settings, the portraits feel profoundly symbolic and highly spiritual. The present scene, which pictures Helga nude and kneeling in the surf, is imbued with a sense of quiet melancholy and isolation, but also an intense intimacy that highlights this odd and secretive relationship between the artist and his model. In the short documentary Helga
, Testorf described the first time Wyeth painted her, stating, “Overnight, I was reborn,... somebody was really looking at me — really seeing me.” That deep emotion is keenly felt in this extraordinary work, and the result was one of Wyeth's favorites from the series. He kept this painting in his own personal collection until his death.
Interestingly, this work combines two of Wyeth's favorite muses, Helga Testorf and Siri Erikson, who became his primary model during his visits to Maine in the 1970s. Wyeth began the painting in Chadds Ford with Helga as she knelt on a bed, and he then finished it in Maine using Siri, replacing the bedsheets with flowing waters.
Born in 1917 in rural Pennsylvania, Andrew Wyeth was the youngest son of the great artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth. He received vigorous artistic training from his father beginning at a young age and enjoyed his first exhibition at just 16 at the Wilmington Society of Fine Arts in Delaware. Watercolor was his preferred medium, though he would later turn to egg tempera, an unusual choice for a modern American painter.
His early works caught the eye of Robert Macbeth, an influential art dealer in New York, who organized Wyeth's first solo exhibition in 1937. After just two days, the show sold out, and Wyeth gained significant recognition on the New York art scene. Despite his popularity, the artist generally remained secluded in his studio, living in Maine and Pennsylvania with his wife and two sons. Still, he remained remarkably popular throughout his lifetime, and today his works are among the most recognizable in 20th-century American art. They can be found in important collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Chadds Ford, PA)
, the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and many others. Additionally, this painting was exhibited at the London Royal Academy of Arts. He was the first living American artist to be elected to the Academy, underscoring Wyeth’s incredible influence.
Paper: 48 1/4" high x 29 1/4" wide
Frame: 62 1/4" high x 43 1/4" wide
References:Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures
, New York, 1987, by J. Wilmerding, p. 29 (illustrated)