The third generation of the Wyeth family of painters, James Browning Wyeth (b. 1946), committed himself to an artistic career by the age of 12. He chose to be tutored at home and to spend the afternoons in the studio of his Aunt Carolyn, formerly her father's studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Carolyn, who was taught the basics of draughtsmanship by N. C., assigned her nephew to draw spheres and cubes for the first year. Although he found these lessons tedious, they became the foundation from which James could find his own artistic voice. It was also in her studio that the young Wyeth first became attracted to the medium of oil paint. It was precisely the "juiciness" that Andrew disliked about the medium that attracted his son. Following one aborted attempt at painting in egg tempera, James chose oil as his primary medium, and continues to use it today.
While Wyeth's celebrated family name helped to gain him fame at an early age, his paintings also showed a talent advanced beyond his years. Like his father, he had his first one-man exhibition at the age of 20, in New York City at Knoedler's. His work at this time was largely landscapes and portraits of people in the Chadds Ford area. Wyeth then spent more time in urban areas such as New York City and Washington, D.C., and his work began to mirror his times. In New York he was mentored by New York City Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein, whose portrait he painted, and later he worked in the studio of his friend Andy Warhol, whose portrait he also painted.
Wyeth ambitiously undertook a well-publicized and controversial posthumous portrait of President John F. Kennedy when he was just 21, which enabled him to befriend and paint other members of the Kennedy clan. Wyeth's Washington connections would be strengthened when he married Phyllis Mills in 1968. (She had worked for President Kennedy when he was a senator and continued working for him after he became president. She also has served on the boards of the National Committee for Arts for the Handicapped, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Resource Defense Council.)
In 1971, Wyeth was commissioned by Harper's Magazine to be one of the court artists for the Watergate trials and congressional hearings, and was a participant in NASA's Eyewitness to Space program during the late '60s and '70s.
Unlike his father's and grandfather's dedication to particular media, Wyeth has been more experimental with his techniques. He has worked in oil on canvas and oil on panel, watercolor on commercially-made paper, watercolor on handmade paper, watercolor on cardboard, and pen and ink on paper, as well as the printmaking techniques of etching and lithography. In addition to oil, he also now works extensively in what he terms "combined mediums" on a variety of supports. "Combined mediums" primarily consists of watercolor and gouache painted with thick impasto layered with selective varnishes, but can include anything, and has even included three dimensional-elements such as 19th-century whale bone letters adhered to paper. (Eat, 1999)
Maine has been a strong influence on Wyeth's work and has been the subject of some of his most experimental and unique paintings. The smooth, almost glassy surface of Bronze Age (1967) was typical of Wyeth's early work. Wyeth painted this image of the fog bell on Manana, which has since been installed on Monhegan Island on Lighthouse Hill, shortly before he purchased a house on Monhegan. Although he spent summers in Maine with his parents and older brother Nicholas during his youth, it was after purchasing the house built by artist Rockwell Kent on Lobster Cove that Wyeth began spending significant time painting Monhegan's people and places.
Since moving to Southern Island at the mouth of Tenants Harbor in the early 1990s, Wyeth has spent more and more time painting in Maine. The isolation of the island has allowed him to focus with less distraction.
Exhibitions of James Wyeth's work are primarily presented in the Mary Louise Cowan Gallery in the MBNA Center for the Wyeth Family in Maine. Recent exhibitions in this gallery have included Paintings, Props and Costumes: Objects of Inspiration, The Maine Influence: Selected Works by James Wyeth, and the traveling exhibitions One Nation: Patriots and Pirates Portrayed by N. C. Wyeth and James Wyeth and Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer.
Wyeth, James, "Portrait of Orca Bates," 1989, 94.10