The Wyeth Family, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Only one winner in this generation game

In 1929, the documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White took a series of shots of the lobby of the First National Bank of Boston. Lowering and under-lit, these show, among the bank's marbled arches, murals painted five years earlier by Newell Convers Wyeth, known as "NC".

Five years later, Bourke-White would become famous for her images of the Dust Bowl, nature's metaphor for the Great Depression. In 1929, though, that disaster was just beginning, marked by runs on banks such as this one. Bourke-White's dark vision seems oddly prescient. The same can not be said of Wyeth's.

The Boston bank wall paintings showed gallant little ships plying their way through history, from Phoenician biremes and Elizabethan galleons to modern tramp steamers. Brightly coloured and optimistic, NC's murals have the feel of John Masefield's quinquiremes of Nineveh and dirty British coasters. Perhaps they were based on them. Like Masefield's poem, "Cargoes", Wyeth's paintings are a stirring hymn to trade, to the beneficence of commerce. Scarcely had their paint dried than capitalism encountered the squall that seemed likely to sink it forever.

Given the current economic climate (not to mention current attitudes to bankers), it is brave of Bank of America Merrill Lynch to have lent these pictures to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. BAML owns a collection of the work of the Wyeth family, titular heroes of Dulwich's new show. NC's son, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), has some claim to being the best-known American figurative painter of the 20th century; his grandson, James Browning Wyeth, known as Jamie, now in his sixties, is also an artist. For all America's meritocratic claims, I can not think of a British art dynasty to match the Wyeths, any more than I can imagine the son of a British premier following his father as the next prime minister but one. As both the Wyeths and the Bushes show, American inheritance is not necessarily a matter of talent.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about NC Wyeth's little ships – about his work in general – is their link to commerce. They are, in more senses than one, commercial art. Pretty well all of the pictures in the opening section of The Wyeth Family are illustrations to stories: Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, novellas by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Quite what relation these full-size paintings, many in egg tempera, bear to NC's book plates is not revealed by the literature accompanying this show. Are they studies? More to the point, do we care? The Dulwich exhibition shows NC Wyeth to have been at best a mediocre commercial artist, at worst the maker of such curiously revolting images as Untitled (Marines landing on the beach): part Teddy Roosevelt, part GI Joe and entirely missable.

Given the show's title, I feel I'm not giving anything away by saying that Jamie Wyeth follows, all too closely, in his grandfather's footsteps. I wouldn't have thought it possible for a contemporary painter to make a work such as September 11th 2001, but there it is for all to see. JB Wyeth's picture adds to the dreadfulness of that day with a horror of its own. Based on Joe Rosenthal's shot of US marines on Iwo Jima, this picture evokes a glib patriotism I assumed – hoped – had disappeared with Vietnam. I very much doubt it would be hanging in Dulwich Picture Gallery had Wyeth's surname not been Wyeth, any more than I imagine JB could have painted portraits of Rudolf Nureyev (included in this show) or of Andy Warhol (sadly not).

Which leaves the missing link of Andrew Wyeth, the only reason I can think of – and not a very good one at that – for going to this exhibition. It is often said that Andrew Wyeth divides US critical opinion, although I'd guess that division is along regional lines. (New York and Los Angeles hate him, Middle America loves him.) The banker Abraham Mendelssohn – child of the philosopher Moses, sire of the composer Felix – once sadly remarked: "Formerly I was my father's son, now I am my son's father." Andrew Wyeth was at least spared that. Of the three, he is the only Wyeth with any shred of originality, albeit of a loopy kind. His Antler Cross (1983) is hauntingly composed and well painted, and a couple of his other pictures are intriguing. Tickets to this show cost £9, though, which works out at £3 per interesting picture. A walk in Dulwich Park is free.

To 22 Aug (020-8693 5254)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent digs out his water wings to visit Ernesto Neto's new show (including swimming pool) at the Hayward Gallery

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk