There's a specific painting in the Cincinnati Art Museum that has always stuck with me because of how emotional the simple composition is. Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) painted Portrait of Henry Teel* in 1945. Henry Teel, according to the information placard in the museum, was a friend of Wyeth who was the only resident of Teel's Island, Maine.
Henry Teel sits bathed in sunlight to the right side of his understated kitchen at an open window, looking out onto a scene we cannot see. Only one empty chair remains at an empty table, the door is slightly ajar, and a cupboard sits in the corner. He has pulled a chair up to the window and rests his arm on the windowsill for comfort. The scene can be interpreted in a couple ways, but it's initially understood to be unbearably lonely and exudes a strong sense of isolationism, yet it's oddly warm due to the color palette used. It's unclear if it's morning or evening. It's unclear if Henry is happy.
I'm not sure if Wyeth meant for this painting to say more than "this is my friend in his New England home", and I don't know if he meant to fill it with symbolism, but I like this painting so much because I think it says so many subtle things with so few objects. The fact is he's the only person on an island in the uppermost corner of an entire country. To say he's alone in the world is a gross understatement. Henry Teel may be one of the most lonely people on Earth in 1945. We know he has at least one friend in the world, Andrew Wyeth, so the need to fill a table with more than two chairs is unnecessary. The door, which is barely open, suggests Henry is most likely an approachable fellow who would welcome anyone into his home (if anyone ever came by to see him). He has also meticulously placed his decorative plates at an upright angle to properly display them; I think this is symbolic of Henry's hope that he won't be alone for long. He hasn't completely ruled out the idea of a visitor coming by, so he's still keeping up appearances. He has his back to the other window and the door, two routes of entry for another person to enter his space. He's only facing one exit; perhaps this is symbolic of his blindness to other routes he could take in life. Or maybe the blackness behind the door and curtained window are symbolic of both the wrong path to take (the door) and the impossible path (the curtained window) so he's correctly facing the brightly lit, open path before him. Perhaps the fact that Henry's body is angled a different way than the direction he's facing is symbolic of doubt, confusion, and inner turmoil; he could be conflicted about what he wants to do or where he wants to go. His heart points toward the viewer, but his eyes stare longingly toward another.
But the message behind the painting I cannot figure out, and the one that is most important to me, is that of Henry's happiness. We can make a case for him being lonely and longing for more in life based on the symbolism previously listed, but we could also see it as a man content with his world. The color palette, as I said earlier, is surprisingly warm. His kitchen looks like it smells of salty sea air and weathered wood and appears unusually peaceful. I imagine hearing birds through the open window and feeling a slight breeze waft through the room. Henry may be sitting at the windowsill the way he is because he's comfortable. Perhaps he's looking out of the window to admire the tranquility of his own personal island away from the din of the modern American cities further down the coast. Maybe it's morning and he's greeting the rising sun by being present for its return over the horizon, hopeful he'll have another successful day in life. Or maybe it's actually evening and he's reflecting on how good his day was.
This is why this painting is so important to me. You cannot firmly pin it down. Henry Teel could be both the loneliest, saddest man in an isolated corner of the world or the happiest, most contented man that same isolated corner. He could both be longing for the company of another and reveling in the quiet he has been granted. Henry Teel is an enigma who we will never be able to fully understand because the circumstances of his existence are so amorphous.
If you ever find yourself in the Cincinnati Art Museum, you should stop and really look at this painting. It's an absolutely incredible piece.
*Credit: Andrew Wyeth (American, b.1917, d.2009), Henry Teel, 1945, tempera on panel, Cincinnati Art Museum, Bequest of Paul E. Geier, 1983.62