Jamie Wyeth’s “Orca Bates,” 1990, oil on panel, 40 x 40 in., collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
Jamie Wyeth’s “Orca Bates,” 1990, oil on panel, 40 x 40 in., collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
"Orca Bates," a painting of a boy raised on Monhegan Island, is among Jamie Wyeth's most enigmatic, visually seductive, and emotionally charged portraits. It belongs to a series of paintings of Orca begun in late 1989, continuing for five years, and charting the boy's journey from childhood to adolescence. On Monhegan Island adolescence ends at eighth grade, as youngsters of high-school age must leave home and family to complete their education at a state-subsidized boarding school on the mainland. "There his understanding of the ways of seagulls and fishermen," art historian Richard McClanathan has observed of Monhegan youth cast ashore, "doesn't count for much."

At Wyeth's request Orca himself signed "Orca Bates," at the lower left in red, block letters. It is the "signature" painting from the series. Another striking example, "Portrait of Orca Bates," from the previous year is in the collection of the Farnsworth Museum. Insisting that Orca sign the later painting was a way of stating Wyeth's belief that it was created in equal measure by the sitter, so naturally does he occupy the imagined space. Orca's youthful, naked vulnerability plays against the massive, tooth-studded whale jawbone, its whiteness and associations with a mythic, distant past a stark contrast to the blushing, reddish-pink glow that seems to emanate from within the boy's wet, shimmering body. Sitting on an antique sea chest, Orca is a young Jonah, or Melville's Ishmael, freshly plucked from the sea. It also contains echoes of John Singleton Copley's early masterpiece, "Watson and the Shark," 1778 (the original of three versions is at National Gallery of Art, D.C.), the dramatic depiction of a 14-year-old (Brook Watson) literally pulled from the jaws of a shark in Havana Harbor. Orca's of-the-moment digital watch, an intentional detail pointing to the present, pulls the painting back from historical and literary references that Orca, from a hard-working fishing family, would likely have found mystifying if not surreal.

Upon seeing the completed painting, Orca complained that Wyeth distorted the size of his feet. An artist who gained an understanding of anatomy at the level of sinew and bone through field studies with a surgeon at a New York hospital morgue, Wyeth exaggerated his model's feet to suggest the way young men sometimes grow into their bodies in fits and starts. It is, to say the least, an awkward age for boys, harder still, perhaps, for those stepping from a 19th-century way of life into the late 20th.

Wyeth is a master at rendering natural textures, whether molting seagull feathers, aged wood, or new flesh. His technique, practiced since early boyhood, is fluent and sure; surfaces are built over time and paintings can take many weeks to complete. The final results have both solidity and supple freshness. In "Orca Bates" the painter's brushwork is vigorous, with quick, gliding strokes that blend optically to create complex spatial and light effects. The warm earth tones, creamy yellows, and sunburnt reds in the whalebone and Orca's flesh contrast with the cool violets, purples, and blue-grays in the background clapboards and sea chest. The entire surface is alive with flickering energy and painterly touch. Wyeth is a physical painter and loves the feel, smell and texture of oil paint; generous amounts of it often end up on his clothes, the studio floor, and more or less permanently under his nails. The technique and subject are in perfect, rhyming consonance.

Naked, a creature of primal nature, Orca is literally in a state of becoming. His world of timelessness and immediacy, of valued traditions colliding with contemporary culture, of lost innocence and bright promise, are all present in Wyeth's remarkable portrait.