Andrew Wyeth died yesterday in his sleep at his family home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania; he was 91.
On 19 February 1970, President and Mrs. Nixon hosted the Wyeths at a dinner they gave in his honor, on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition of his paintings in the White House — the first artist ever to accorded that honor in that place. (Mrs. Nixon’s official White House portrait was later painted by Andrew Wyeth’s sister, Henriette Wyeth Hurd, who was present at the dinner.) Here is the President’s toast:
Mr. Wyeth, Mrs. Wyeth, and all of our distinguished guests tonight:
This is a very special occasion in this historic room. Many events have happened here for the first time. I think all of us will remember that this is the first time in the history of this house in which the honored guest, the only honored guest, was one of the great painters of the world, and that honored guest is Andrew Wyeth tonight.
This occasion also marks something new in terms of White House history. For the first time a painter has in the White House, on display, some of his works of art. And we are very proud that the Andrew Wyeth collection, a collection that was made possible by not only him, but by many of our guests this evening, is here so that it can be enjoyed by those here and by many others who will be visiting the White House in the weeks ahead.
Now, having mentioned these two historical firsts, I have been trying to think of something appropriate and very personal to say to this audience which includes those who know Andrew Wyeth through his paintings, some who have had the good fortune to have them in their homes, and others, of course, who are members of his family.
I was reminded before I came here that the Wyeth family has a special connection with the White House, a special connection because at least one of the members of the family has painted a President of the United States.
I have no plans to have my portrait painted. However, as one of the very gracious ladies came through the receiving line tonight, she met me for the first time, and she looked and said, “You know, Mr. President, you don’t look like your pictures at all.”
Then I recalled, as she said that, what one of my researchers pointed out: that a very old man who had been painted by Andrew Wyeth, when he saw the painting, remarked, “Andy found something in that painting that I don’t see in the mirror.” And believe me, that is the kind of a man I want to paint me.
As all of you know, we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of this country. In 1776 it began, and in 1976 the birthday will be celebrated. And there has been a great deal of talk about what America will want to look back on that day, how we will want this country to be remembered.
I think all of us in this room would agree that we would prefer, that as historians talk about the first 200 years of this Nation, that they would write not so much about how rich we were, or how strong we were, but perhaps more about how wise we were, how good we were, and how creative we were.
That is why we felt that to honor this great American painter was very appropriate on this occasion; because he has contributed something special to American life, something that cannot be contributed by our great military strength and our economic wealth, a quality of spirit, a quality of beauty, which only the greater civilizations can leave to posterity.
The last time I was in this room proposing a toast, then to the Prime Minister of England, I quoted President Eisenhower’s Guildhall speech in London, right after World War II, when he, President Eisenhower, said that he came from the heart of America, which he did, because he came from Kansas. He came from the geographical heart of America and I felt also, as I think most of us did, from the spiritual heart of America.
Andrew Wyeth has said that what he was trying to do through his paintings was to let Americans see America for what it was.
As I ask you to drink to his health tonight, I think we can truly say that Andrew Wyeth, in his paintings, has caught the heart of America, and certainly tonight, the heart of America belongs to him.
Winter (1946) by Andrew Wyeth
“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”