How Andrew Wyeth’s Cast Bronze Hands Inspired a Morbid Self-Portrait

Andrew Wyeth, "Breakup" (1994), tempera on panel, 20 x 28 inches (courtesy Bonhams)
Andrew Wyeth, “Breakup” (1994), tempera on panel, 20 x 28 inches (© 2016 Andrew Wyeth/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy Bonhams)

Andrew Wyeth was not fond of self-portraits, and they rarely appear in his long career in 20th-century realism. One rare exception is the curious 1994 painting “Breakup” that has two human hands reaching through an ice floe, each based on actual casts of the artist’s hands. He once stated, as printed in a 1965 issue of Life magazine, that he wished he could “paint without me existing — that just my hands were there,” and there’s some echo of that vanishing in the layered tempera.

The painting and bronze casts of his hands are listed in the May 18 American Art auction at Bonhams New York. The painting is from a private collection in North Carolina, purchased directly from Wyeth. “After they acquired it, the Wyeths gave them the bronze hands,” Kayla Carlsen, director of American art at Bohams, told Hyperallergic. “They wanted a set to remain with the painting since the artist used them in the rendering.”

Carlsen added that there “are two studies for ‘Breakup’ in institutional collections,” and the painting has exhibited extensively, including the 2005–06 Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Georgia and the 2014 Andrew Wyeth: Seven Decades show at Adelson Galleries in New York. “We do not know of any other works in which Wyeth incorporated his hands,” Carlsen said. “I also can’t think of any examples of other artists that worked in this way.”

Bronze hands cast from Andrew Wyeth's hands by Laran Bronze Foundry, Inc., in Chester, Pennsylvania (1985-86) (courtesy Bonhams)
Bronze hands cast from Andrew Wyeth’s hands by Laran Bronze Foundry, Inc., in Chester, Pennsylvania (1985-86) (courtesy Bonhams)

Wyeth, who died in 2009, is best known, and sometimes derided, for his often sentimental visions of rural life. Yet even in the most subdued scenes, there is a sense of unease; his 1949 self-portrait “The Revenant” is set in a room seemingly charred by smoke. At the Museum of Modern Art, his popular 1948 “Christina’s World” has a woman splayed on a field gazing towards a barn with unclear intent. While he used his hands in “Breakup,” for “Christina’s World,” he based the torso of the figure on his wife Betsy. She was the one who commissioned a cast of his hands in fiberglass in 1976 from Dr. Adrian E. Flatt. Later, between 1985 and 1986, Laran Bronze Foundry in Pennsylvania cast them in bronze.

According to Bonhams, Wyeth displayed the hands on a windowsill in their Pennsylvania home “overlooking the nearby Brandywine River,” where the hands’ silhouette was contrasted against the annual freeze of the water. Although Wyeth did at one point undergo hand surgery, it’s worth pointing out that Dr. Flatt was quite the hand-caster, starting with his fellow surgeons to show the diversity of their supposed “surgeon hands,” and continuing throughout his career to collect various casts for his hand surgery teaching at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

The center still has a display of over 100 bronze hands from his collection on view. He also took casts of the famous, including presidents like Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, artists like Norman Rockwell, and astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. So, in a way, “Breakup” isn’t just a rather melancholy portrait of an artist defeated beneath the ice or resurrecting after the thaw; it’s an indirect tribute to one of the great hand experts of the 20th century.

The Bonhams American Art auction (580 Madison Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) will take place on May 18.

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