Robert Wylie


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(1839–77). Painter. A specialist in scenes of French peasant life, he also painted landscapes. Regarded as the founder of the art colony in Pont-Aven, he resided in Brittany for most of his short career and came to be as highly respected in France as he was in the United States. His picturesque Breton interiors explore details of costume and setting with painterly brushwork and rich chiaroscuro that underscore the solemn dignity of his rural subjects. Born at Douglas on the British Isle of Man and orphaned as a child, he lived in Philadelphia under the care of an uncle. He trained as a carver of ivory umbrella handles before becoming an expert draftsman at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He had begun sculpting before he visited London in 1859 or 1860. To continue his studies, he arrived in Paris at the end of 1863 and soon turned entirely to painting. During the summer of 1864 he first visited Pont-Aven and a year or two later became the first artist to settle in the village. He fully adopted its way of life and eventually died there of tuberculosis. As an enthusiast for the locale and the only American artist known to have learned the Celtic Breton language, the personable young man spearheaded the village's development as an art colony. Other Americans soon attracted there included Frederick Bridgman, Thomas Hovenden, and William Lamb Picknell. Wylie's closely observed and sympathetic studies of his unsophisticated neighbors appealed to romantic fascination with the supposed strength and virtue of “primitive” country people, thought to be uncorrupted by industrialization and secular materialism. As the artist recognized, however, their isolation and ignorance sometimes had unhealthy consequences. A Fortune Teller of Brittany (Corcoran Gallery, c. 1872) highlights an elderly sorceress who frightens a young woman as others look on in consternation. Reflecting Wylie's characteristically intimate grasp of local customs, it also recalls Baroque and nineteenth-century realist precedents in its deft composition and dramatic illumination.

From The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.

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