Closed World, Open Window
I grew up right outside Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a bucolic landscape where the Brandywine River snakes through gentle hills and verdant farmland. The winters could be brutal. They were often kissed by nor’easters and bone-cold. For a long time, all I saw in winter was a white-out moonscape lashed with stiff stalks of brown. A countryside erased of color. The milky sky looming overhead like a shroud. In time, Andrew Wyeth taught me to know my home better. He endeavored to paint what he once called the natural world’s “bone structure.” His wintry landscapes teemed with life, showing the icy terrain not dead, but dormant.
Weeks into isolation made necessary by a global pandemic, I’ve thought of Wyeth’s work often. His quietude. His muted palette. Most of all, I’ve returned to his windows.
Maybe painters understand windows better than the rest of us. Windows are often their point of entry to the world—the shifting light and the rich color—and their protection from it, too. Perhaps Wyeth’s most definitive rendering of a window can be found in Wind from the Sea, his 1947 masterpiece in tempera.
There are no humans in Wind from the Sea to give it a story, yet the trappings of humanity remain. A road curves through a sea of grass. Shadows climb a darkened room. Through the half-opened, sanded-down window, light emanates from the natural world. Stillness, after all, is not stasis. There is still such movement here. Curtains ride a salt-laden breeze. The Atlantic shines. Grass rustles free of footprints. And the world goes on, indifferent to the loss of us.
Wyeth reminds us that solitude is a matter of perspective. Wind from the Sea presents either an unsettling work of anticipation—waiting for someone to arrive, for something to happen—or one of peace. Similarly, our isolation can either be a hardship to be endured, or a rare still-point which begs for reflection. Wyeth knew that even a dormant season presents its own spare beauty, its quiet spaces worthy of our attention.
Elizabeth Webster is an attorney and writer. Her writing has been previously published in Medium and The Startup.
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He painted Wind from the Sea a year before he painted Christina’s World. According to the National Gallery of Art, where the work is held, it is one of Wyeth’s earliest scenes of a window.