The glitter of Night Hauling: Andrew Wyeth in the 1940s






By Alexander Nemerov

How do we account for the strangeness of Andrew Wyeth’s art of the 1940s? How, that is, beyond discerning the surrealist undertones, finding the magic realist affinities, or seeing that Wyeth followed in a Brandywine tradition whose oddity was firmly established by Howard Pyle-lone pirates on desolate shores; magicians and curly-shoed dwarves; Revolutionary War officers strolling down streets so detailed (down to every last timber, shop sign, and grass blade) they make your head swim? Is the young Andrew Wyeth only an inheritor of that tradition, updating it in a modernist-inflected manner for the 1940s, and might we leave it simply at that? Or is something else going on? Consider Night Hauling, a painting Wyeth made in 1944 showing a lone man on the ocean at night, furtively stealing from a lobster trap amid twinklings and gleaming pours of phosphorescence (Fig. 1).

That bioluminescence is our first clue. The “burning of the sea,” as the scientist E. Newton Harvey describes it in his book Living Light (1940), “results from living organisms, both microscopic and macroscopic.” The bigger gleams, he writes, usually come from jellyfish “and give rise to the larger, more brilliant flashes of light often seen in the wake or about the sides of a steamer at night.” The tiny gleams, by contrast, are caused by “various species of dinoflagellates…such as Noctiluca (just visible to the naked eye) which collect on the surface of the sea and often increase in such numbers that the water is colored by day (usually pink and red) and shines like a sheet of fire when disturbed at night.”1 Those fiery organisms had long been a good choice for artists wanting to show wondrous effects.

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