A sense of unease in an immaculate world pervades Andrew Wyeth's "Airborne." One of the artist's most compelling late paintings, the airy and expansive image represents a phase in Wyeth's work during which he infused his precisely detailed, slowly crafted temperas with the freedom and energy of watercolor. Some passages in "Airborne" - most notably in the sky and water - recall the dashing bravura of the watercolors that brought Wyeth national acclaim when he was still a teenager. At the same time, a meticulous attention to minute detail harkens to razor-sharp memories and potent personal associations as layered as the process of building up a tempera painting, one brushstroke at a time.

Set against a running sea, through the gut separating Allen and Benner islands, "Airborne" depicts the artist's and his wife Betsy's home, seven miles out to sea from Port Clyde and even further removed from today's rushing milieu of urban-centered contemporary life. In the upper right of the image, across the narrow channel, is Allen Island, originally called Pentecost Island by the English adventurer and explorer George Weymouth, who made landfall there on Pentecost Sunday, 1605. Thus, "the whisper of history," as Betsy often says - a history that is both personal and public - inhabits the islands and Wyeth's thoughts about them.

The move to Benner was relatively recent, as was the house, despite its appearance of always having been there. The traditional New England Cape Cod-style house was assembled from salvaged and antique building materials. Designed by Betsy, the house seems to have been modeled on the ancestral residence of the reclusive fisherman Henry Teel, the last descendant of a family that for generations lived on nearby Teel Island. Betsy dubbed the home "the oar house." The oar atop the house that serves as a weather vane originally belonged to Teel, a lanky, laconic Yankee fisherman who was the subject of many of Wyeth's earliest watercolors and temperas. Teel was in many ways the male counterpart of Wyeth's model Christina Olson, whose own pride, resilience, and endurance are poignantly represented in the 1948 painting "Christina's World" (Museum of Modern Art). Indeed, one of Wyeth's most enduring images is that of Teel's oar propped against a huge boulder on a beach, a painting entitled "Duel" that is in part, at the very least, a surrogate portrait of Henry and his hard-fought relationship with the sea and life itself. The oar house also may be seen as a visual and physical reminder of Betsy's and Andrew's own early years together, including Betsy's pivotal role in her new husband's development, gently but firmly pushing him away from her father-in-law N.C. Wyeth's long shadow and dominant influence as Andrew's first and only teacher.

In his later years, Wyeth introduced brighter, even jarring, color into his work. Here, a high-keyed, spring-green lawn leads from the foreground to the weathered gray clapboard house and the gunmetal sky. This contrasting palette of bright greens, flashing whites and dull grays vividly conveys the island's and Maine's changeable weather, tides, and seasonal rhythms. What is unexpected and unnatural is the scrim of floating feathers in the foreground. The suggestion here, as in many of Wyeth's paintings, is that something is taking place just beyond the frame, an implied narrative where beginning and ending are unknown. We can speculate and wonder: might it be a sudden attack by one of the island's resident bald eagles on the geese and ducks who summer on the pond next to the house? Molting birds and seagulls simply don't shed their feathers in mid-flight, or at least not so abundantly, all at once. The intimation of overhead violence, silent and unseen, is fraught. Unexpected disaster and inexplicable tragedy had haunted Wyeth since 1945, when his father was killed as his car stalled on the tracks at a railroad crossing in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

On the other hand, island living was then clipping the artist's own wings - he continued to maintain his principal studio on the mainland - and the painting may allude to his own transitory presence and desired escape from the world his wife, Betsy, had so meticulously created for them both. For good and loving reasons Betsy felt the need to keep her aging husband closer to home, something the boyish, wandering artist - in his mind's eye he was still Robin Hood and the agile fencing master of his youth - resisted with every fiber in his being. Black humor and visual ripostes to his wife's attempts at control are not unknown in Wyeth's work - for instance, a self-portrait as a full-body skeleton ("Dr. Syn," 1981), jovially outfitted in an antique naval uniform from his father's studio, that Andrew once gave Betsy for her birthday. Even so, interpretive possibilities are endless, and specific references always undone by levels of unknowable personal association, again not unlike the slow process of applying individual layers of tempera on a panel where one meaning can be buried inside or underneath another. Memory and magic, as the title of his last major retrospective exhibition was titled.

Wyeth's son Jamie has come closest to defining his father's art and its hidden sources: "His world was a magically airless, crystal-lit microcosm, of which he was the sole inhabitant, and his art will forever remain, by his own design, elusive." In Wyeth's world, reality is always mysterious and illusory: like feathers on a breeze, only momentarily - and perhaps never really - there.