Early Christian theologians defined greed, sloth, lust, gluttony, anger, pride, and envy as the "seven deadly sins" to educate followers about vices that could lead to eternal punishment. The sins and their relationship to the concept of hell have played a significant role in Western literature and art. Dante famously dealt with the theme in his Divine Comedy, as did Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales and Christopher Marlowe in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Perhaps the most famous painted treatments of the subject are those of 15th- and 16th-century Netherlandish painters, Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The sins continue to inspire literary and artistic works in modern times, including films such as Se7en and Bedazzled.
Jamie Wyeths's memory of viewing Paul Cadmus's paintings of the subject in the 1960s was the inspiration for his own exploration of the sins. Wyeth assessed Cadmus's work as seven "very small temperas, kind of more cartoon-like . . . but sort of horrifying and impressive." Intrigued, he investigated the tradition of the sins and the prescribed punishments of wrenching humiliation, painful disfigurement or tortuous death.
When it came to his interpretation of the subject, Wyeth chose gulls to represent sinful behavior. Having observed and painted sea birds for decades along the coast of Maine and in his studios on Monhegan and Southern islands, Wyeth has described them as "nasty birds, filled with their own jealousies and rivalries." Unlike earlier artists whose work was governed by didactic purpose, Wyeth freely focused on the behavior of each sin and found correlation in the day-to-day life of gulls. In Envy (2005), the bond of friendship between two gulls rankles a third gull sporting an indifferent yet disgruntled expression. In Pride (2008), a boastful bird boisterously parades a prized catch--a lobster--in his beak while trouncing upon a competitor. In Gluttony (2005), a gull in a feeding frenzy tries to choke down a fat fish and simultaneously devour those thrashing in escape.
Wyeth's paintings of the sins show exuberant color, texture and sureness of form. There is grace and eloquence to the birds' bodies and their grey and white plumage is luminous with reflected light, dazzling highlights, and rich velvety shadows. The paintings all have a border of streaks, blobs and swirls of bright red and yellow. These edges suggest fire and further suggest the relationship of sin to hell. The sinful series culminates in the painting, Inferno, Monhegan (2005), which has occupied the artist in many versions for the past 20 years. The work depicts a huge moveable tank used to burn the island's garbage, and its hellish fire stoked by a local youth. Wyeth says, "It stunk, and the gulls were streaking in and here is this angelic boy shoving the garbage in with his oar. It was just like out of Dante. You couldn't have made it up. It belched with this black smoke and thick fire. It was unbelievable." With this experience emblazoned in his mind, Wyeth connected Inferno to the Seven Deadly Sins.
The exhibition includes seven paintings of sin and a group of eight related works and studies. It also includes Inferno and a film by D'Arcy Marsh that documents the painting's creation.
Jamie Wyeth--Seven Deadly Sins is on view from September 12 through November 22, 2009. The exhibition was organized by the Farnsworth Art Museum with the cooperation of the Brandywine River Museum. It is funded in part by generous gifts from Mrs. Douglas Auchincloss; the Michael and Elizabeth Kingman Foundation and Adelson Galleries, New York.
This fall, the Brandywine River Museum also presents Inventive and Intrepid: Illustrations by Rockwell Kent, on view from September 12 through November 19.
The Brandywine River Museum is located on U.S. Route 1 in Chadds Ford, ennsylvania. The museum is open daily, except Christmas Day, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults; $6 for seniors ages 65 and over, students, and children ages 6-12; free for children under six and Brandywine Conservancy members. For more information, please call 610-388-2700 or visit the museum's website at www.brandywinemuseum.org.
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