The Helga Pictures

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When he first viewed the Helga Collection as a potential purchaser, Leonard E.B. Andrews pronounced Andrew Wyeth’s work a national treasure. Over a period of fifteen years (1971-1985), the artist produced a series of more than 240 works devoted to one model, Helga Testorf. THE HELGA PICTURES is arranged chronologically and by subject so as to clarify how the paintings evolved from preliminary sketches. Wyeth achieves his most memorable effects in the tempera and drybrush paintings that employ warm brown and red tones.

The works capture the model from numerous perspectives--posing as if for a portrait, walking, reclining, sitting, kneeling, or forming a small figure in a landscape. At times she is nude or nearly so, at others bundled in heavy clothing. The pictures and sketches reveal an astonishing range of human emotions and moods, though they are controlled and subdued; Helga is pensive, quizzical, melancholy, serene, reflective, or inviting. In numerous paintings Wyeth positions her near a doorway or window, enabling him to capture subtle effects of light and to contrast the human form with a stark geometric design.

The initial impression suggests American realism with a peculiarly New England flavor, yet Wyeth considers himself an abstract artist. While the subject strikes one as realistic, upon close examination something additional emerges, for Wyeth achieves effects of light and color that transcend realism and strengthen the mood or aura of the paintings. Wyeth’s illumination of the human form creates stronger contrasts between light and shade than one perceives in reality. Colors from the clothing or background extend to the human body in carefully detailed brush strokes, as if harmonizing the human form with its surroundings. The hair color, for example, may blend with grass, with an item of clothing, or with leaves. Such subtle, complex techniques lend texture and thematic depth to the works.