Regarding Beauty

Beauty has been a recurring theme in these writings of mine – it’s a concept constantly slipping away from any final definition.

Wyeth Window 2

Andrew Wyeth, “Frostbitten” (1962), watercolor on paper (Private Collection. © Andrew Wyeth)

In his book Why Beauty is Key to  Everything Alan Moore writes:

I have always been fascinated by beautiful things: architecture, furniture, books.  Beautiful things are prepared with love. The act of creating something of beauty is a way of bringing good into the world.  Infused with optimism, it says simply: Life is worthwhile.

Wyeth Window 1Andrew Wyeth, “Wind from the Sea” (1947), tempera on hardboard (© Andrew Wyeth. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Charles H. Morgan)

I totally agree with parts of this statement, with the idea that the act of creating something of beauty is a way of bringing good into the world, but I find the last lines challenging. To my mind, beauty isn’t necessarily infused with optimism. Quite to the contrary, beauty is often steeped in sadness, soaked in a strange and incomprehensible kind of dark melancholy that speaks much more to mye heart than to my mind.

I see beauty as a complex idea, not as concept suitable for instrumentalisme.


Andrew Wyeth, “Evening at Kuerners” (1970), drybrush watercolor on paper (© Andrew Wyeth. Private Collection.)

Oh, yes; I would love for the world to be drenched in beauty – but can beauty really expel sadness? And make it easier for us to appreciate life?

Wyeth Benjamin's House

Andrew Wyeth,

Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009)

27 Comments Add yours

  1. Rio says:

    I am grateful for the fact that beauty is still considered, thought of, discovered, explored. It is, even when it is steeped in sadness, still relevant, still astondingly relevant.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Absolutely my fav painting of his… and he lived on my fav island Monhegan!!! Want to visit and stay longer… soon. Beautiful post to long consider and agree that beauty often cracks the surface of happiness and leaves a depth open to much more than had beauty not succumbed to let us know it had arrived.

    1. Sigrun says:

      I really don’t know anything about Andrew Wyeth, but it seems he has had a rather low standing in the American art establishment? Would love to see some of his work in “real life”!

      1. Jeanne says:

        I have only begun to be an art appreciator… and have never seen his pieces in person either. I am not aware of any public displays of his art on Monhegan but heard of him via my research on my travels. Postage stamps were issued in 2017 commemorating his works and i tried pasting a photo of them here but it failed to work. Perhaps i can reblog your enjoyable post along with a photo of the stamps. I have yet to use one of the stamps… saving them for the specialist letters to write. J

      2. Why the impression his standing is low? It has always seemed rather high to me. He was from Pennsylvania, where I grew up and has always been a source of pride to Pennsylvanians. His work is in all major museums and widely anthologized.

        I appreciate both Moore’s statement as well as yours. Optimism implies hope, and while sadness can lead to despair, it is not necessarily incompatible with hope. I think one of the primary functions of art is to transform pain (all of the things that might lead to despair) into the pleasures attendant to beauty. It is far more difficult for me to imagine someone in a suicidal depression deriving any value from the beauty of art (they would be blind to it; we might say they have lost all optimism) than to imagine a very sad person deriving encouragement from regarding that beauty. We may not want to call beauty a sign of optimism. Nevertheless it does lie, I think, in the area of hope.

    2. Sigrun says:

      Would love to see those stamps 😀 feel free to re-blog whatever interest you!

  3. erin says:

    There is definitely something complicated here to consider. (I come by your beautiful site time to time and enjoy what you have to offer, but never have I been of the impression that your work occludes sadness.)

    “Life is worthwhile” – this implies value. And value can only garner its significance with the presence of sadness. Too often we diagnose value as a facet of only happiness. (Happiness itself can’t exist without its foil.)

    Real beauty is an act of creation, transformation, a rupture with what was, so that something new might become. With every riven thing there is an experience of pain, loss, sorrow, and in its most beautiful state there yet remains a glow or gloss of gratitude and worth.

    Thank you for continually giving us beautiful things.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you for thinking with mere here, Erin. Your comment made me think of Baudelaire – he said: “Beauty always has an element of strangeness. I do not mean a deliberate cold form of strangeness, for in that case it would be a monstrous thing that had jumped the rails of life. But I do mean that it always contains a certain degree of strangeness, of simple, unintended, unconscious strangeness, and that this form of strangeness is what gives it the right to be called beauty”. (Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature, 1855)

  4. Suellyn says:

    Your insights into creating beauty in art state the real truth about beauty. Other ideas, I feel are platitudes. Thank you for each and every one of your posts and for sharing your art. I wait to receive each one.
    Suellyn Scoo.

    1. Sigrun says:

      How wonderful to hear this! And thank you so much for taking time to visit my ramblings!

  5. erin says:

    I’ll read further on Baudelaire. It sounds like an intriguing venture. thank you!

  6. “Beauty is often steeped in sadness.” Ahh, so much to think about here.
    I find beauty in sadness, melancholy, and dark spaces. Also in longing. Many of the most beautiful writings also come about from an experience of loss or pain. (Speaking as a writer/reader.)
    I really like the first painting, “Frostbitten,” which in itself is a painful condition! But how beautifully it is portrayed by Wyeth.

    1. Sigrun says:

      I wonder, maybe beauty is 3 dimentional – always partly in shadow?

  7. I watched a documentary about him a while ago, intriguing story and paintings of Helga Testorf, Wyeth painted her over the period 1971–85 without the knowledge of either his wife or Helga’s husband, John Testorf.

    1. Sigrun says:

      I have seen some of the Helga portraits, liked them a lot. Will try to find the documentary.

  8. Sigrun says:

    Mark, thank you for a very good comment! Bringing in hope is a very interesting thought indeed, I will have to spend som time thinking it over – is hope different from optimism, and if so, how? Yes, you have certainly given me something to mull over …

    When it comes to Wyeth’s reputation I think I noticed some negative comments among the critics, but I guess many figurative painters received rather harsh critique at the end of last century.

  9. bluebrightly says:

    These Wyeth paintings are a good illustration of your misgivings about that quote – it’s just a bit too simplistic, isn’t it?

    1. Sigrun says:

      The thing is — I don’t know; and that’s why I keep writing & thinking about it.
      After years drenched in heavy theorizing, I am wondering if I have to reconsider my view on both philosophy and art. new-age-inspired-positive-thinking is not for me, but simple beauty in plain ordinary life might be.

      1. bluebrightly says:

        I’m all for beauty in the ordinary, I just shy away when someone tries to formulate a concept like beauty, or art. Things (like minds!) get limited. I didn’t like Wyeth when I was in art school, many years ago, because it was all about minimalism, conceptual art, etc. But these are beautiful, no question. Expanding is good!

  10. You observe: “I see beauty as a complex idea, not as concept suitable for instrumentalism”– and this is one reason I follow your blog. I think we all could benefit from, as it were, embracing complexity, mixed feelings, paradoxes, ambiguities. The angst in some things that are beautiful. The terror in some things that are beautiful. And some hope and optimism and happy awe–sure! All of that. And more.

    Thank you.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Ann! I am always very happy to see a note from you here – to see my own, often rather vague notions, reconsidered and taken further. Being received is such a wonderful an important thing – even if the one related to is in a different world…

      Angst and Beauty — Angst in Beauty — Beauty in Angst
      I feel dizziness creeping in on me – .

  11. Here’s a quick anecdote about that idea. When I was quite young–certainly under 21 years old–I walked into a room at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and encountered Picasso’s “Guernica.” It was– HUGE — and vivid, despite its dark colors; and I could not take my eyes off of it even though it was frightening. And it was beautiful, it really is a beautiful painting. So I felt as I felt when encountering religious art depicting the crucifixion, or the torturing of saints, or paintings of hell: there was beauty and sorrow (not of the kind evoked by Wyeth’s paintings, but there are many kinds of sorrow).

    It’s complicated. 🙂

  12. The Farnsworth Museum in Rockland Maine has a large collection of all the Wyeth family paintings. Here is a url to their Andrew Wyeth Collection.

    If beauty can crack me open it is always astounding to me. The Guernica painting is really overwhelming. Like the van Gogh exhibit at the Modern Museum I had to leave the room(s) to maintain my equilibrium. That is what some kinds of beauty do to me. A poem, like Cavafy’s
    ‘Ithaca’ can do the same.Many emotions arise simultaneously and I am left breathless or in tears. Art

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Peter! Thoughts & link much appreciated!

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