by Frances Stead Sellers
[In May 2004, my mother and I drove to New York City from Washington, D.C., by way of Winterthur, the DuPont homestead near Wilmington, Delaware, and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, the home of the Brandywine River Museum, the Wyeth family art museum. On 4 May of this year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will open Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In, and the Washington Post ran this article on Andrew Wyeth, his artist family, and their relation with Chadds Ford, its people, and the farms and countryside around it.]
Five years after Andrew Wyeth’s death, stories about “America’s artist” still animate this little township at the intersection of Route 1 and the Brandywine River.
There’s the one about Wyeth painting a bonfire and picking up a piece of charred wood to take home to his studio, only to have it burst into flames in the back of his car.
The one about the evening he showed up, boyish-proud, at a friend’s dinner party, saying, “Look what I’ve got!” Out in the driveway sat a Stutz Bearcat — a celebrity sports car that he used to say he’d acquired in exchange for a painting.
There are stories about him flipping and rolling his snowmobile and fencing with friends in his studio; about outings with buxom mannequins and a party with a headless skeleton; about how he collected toy soldiers, ordered his burgers rare and had a hug like he wouldn’t let go.
And about how when he died, dozens of cameramen and reporters showed up where he ate at Hank’s Place, wanting to know what it was like when Andy (because he insisted on being called “Andy”) came in with his longtime model, Helga Testorf.
Waitresses and mechanics, friends and neighbors relive memories through bursts of affectionate laughter and sudden silences. For many characters in the dramas that played out in these few square miles of suburbanizing Southeastern Pennsylvania still live nearby, including Helga and Wyeth’s wife of almost seven decades, Betsy.
“When each of us who knew him pass away, it’s going to lose that character,” says Dorothy “Dee” Parker, a retired elementary school art teacher whom Wyeth painted.
But the process of transforming a living icon into a historical one is already well underway.
At 92, Betsy Wyeth, who managed the business side of her husband’s career, has yielded that job to staffers in the Wyeth office, who helped organize the show opening May 4 at the National Gallery with guidance from the couple’s two sons. Plans for what happens after Betsy dies to the thousands of works in her collection have not been unveiled. She has donated Wyeth’s studio to the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art , which embraces her husband’s twin passions for art and the environment and is embarking on an ambitious program to educate people about the artwork and places he helped make famous.
Even as new generations are finding ways to continue what Wyeth stood for, there is the sense that the storytelling isn’t over, that his life, like the river he loved, contains secrets that are yet to surface from the undercurrents and backwaters.
Perhaps that’s not surprising for a man who exuded an aura of mystery and mischief and considered Halloween a favorite family holiday.
There was a “devilish” playfulness about him, according to Nancy Hoving, wife of Thomas Hoving, the late director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He liked to have secrets,” Hoving recalls, “so he could reveal them.”
The most famous of those was Helga, the married German housekeeper and mother of four whom Wyeth painted repeatedly between 1970 and 1985. Although certain people, including Hoving, were aware he had been working with a German model, the extent of the collection — some 240 works, including many nudes — startled the art world and almost certainly Wyeth’s wife. The “Helga Pictures” were a publicity coup, making headlines and news magazine covers and prompting a 1987 show at the National Gallery.
Helga continued to play a role in Wyeth’s life. She was his studio assistant and, as he aged, his companion and caretaker. Wyeth’s studio became what his artist son, Jamie, has called Helga’s “domain,” full of chaos and clutter, unlike the spareness of the renovated mill where Betsy lives on the other side of Route 1. Helga would often eat with Wyeth at the counter at Hank’s Place, and she spent summers at a family place in Maine.
“Andy loved the game of keeping her out of sight or pretending she wasn’t there,” Hoving remembers.
For all the gossip that ensued, Wyeth was accepted and admired in this community. Spending time with him “was too much fun,” remembers Andy Bell, a close friend who did odd jobs for Wyeth and shared his love of pranks. He was “down-to-earth and a little rascal, too,” remembers Lloyd Lisk, another longtime friend.
Wyeth was “such a kind gentleman” — as Vicki Sylvester, a waitress at Hank’s Place, puts it — that he was welcomed into his neighbors’ modest homes to sketch and paint their cracked plaster walls and the windows that will be the focus of the National Gallery exhibit, “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In.”
“He was going into the houses of people who don’t have much money,” says Victoria Wyeth, the artist’s only grandchild. “You can’t be judgmental. They won’t invite you back.”
On the door of Wyeth’s studio, there’s a printed sign: “I am working, so please do not disturb. I do not sign autographs.”
Inside, the kitchen has been reconstructed to look as it did in the pre-Helga era of the 1950s, when the Wyeths lived there with their two young sons. There are toy soldiers on shelves, books in the library, a doll on a windowsill with her head broken off, and a human skeleton hanging in one corner. Strewn on the floor below Wyeth’s easel are copies of the many sketches he would make for each painting, smudged with footprints and dogs’ paw prints.
Visiting feels like intruding on the inner sanctum of this private painter — except, of course, that Wyeth is no longer here.
Visitors are welcome! Nosy strangers, come on in!
The business of breathing new life into the studio and surrounding landscape lies with Virginia Logan, who in 2012 took the top job of overseeing the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art, succeeding someone who had worked there for 38 years. Logan, a lawyer with a corporate background and experience with nonprofits, represents new ambition for an organization that has already helped to preserve close to 60,000 acres of land and has an extensive art collection, as well as historic buildings, including Andrew Wyeth’s studio, his father N.C. Wyeth’s house and studio, and a farm less than a mile away where Wyeth frequently painted.
Logan wants to double the number of visitors to 200,000 a year. She plans to create walking trails and hands-on artistic and ecological experiences across the land. She aims to increase the institution’s international visibility, share the collection of some 4,000 works of art with broader audiences, spur young people’s interest in art and the environment, and take advantage of the proximity to attractions such as Longwood Gardens and Winterthur.
She hopes to do all this, she says, without losing the qualities that attracted the Wyeths here in the early 1900s.
Is there a tipping point in this balancing act of introducing people to places you are trying to preserve?
Logan’s response is considered, reflecting the competence and common sense that employees say she brought to the institution: “I think you’ll know it when you see it,” she says. “If the numbers impede the visitor experience, we’ll do something to address that, to keep the number of people at a level where they get a sense of place and not of being in a crowded place. We want to retain the magic.”
The first Wyeth to fall under that spell was Andrew’s father, Newell Convers Wyeth, who came to Chadds Ford as a student of Howard Pyle, founder of the Brandywine School. Pyle brought his proteges here for summers between 1898 and 1902 to work on the kind of narrative illustration of adventure and romance that was popular in books and magazines of the era.
When N.C. decided to settle here, Chadds Ford combined historic resonance as the site of the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War with rustic simplicity and the sophistication of the du Ponts, who’d built gunpowder mills and grand chateaux along the Brandywine. It was a seductive mix that continues to attract tourists and new residents today.
Directly across Route 1 from the entrance to the Brandywine Battlefield is Ring Road. Drive a few hundred yards, down over Harvey Run and then up, and the road rises abruptly over a small hump. Ahead you can see a red bank barn and an austere white stucco farmhouse facing an open hillside — a sight familiar to anyone who knows Andrew Wyeth’s work. But pause atop the hump and on the left among the tangle of roadside weeds you can see two rods of rusting metal — the remains of the Octoraro branch line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was here in 1945 that N.C. Wyeth was killed in a screeching, bloody concertina of station wagon and locomotive. His 3-year-old grandson and namesake, Newell Convers Wyeth, who was in the car with him, also died.
Nobody knows what happened — whether the car stalled on the tracks or N.C. had a heart attack. A theory developed that N.C. had committed suicide, taking the child with him. Some even say the boy was actually his son — the product of an affair with one of his daughters-in-law. That rumor persists today.
For Andrew Wyeth, in his late 20s and the youngest of N.C.’s five children, the personal tragedy was a professional awakening that cemented his commitment to the countryside.
“When he died, I was just a clever watercolorist — lots of swish and swash,” Wyeth said in a Life magazine interview 20 years after N.C.’s death. “I had always had this great emotion toward the landscape, and so, with his death . . . the landscape took on a meaning — the quality of him.”
That meaning took form in “Winter 1946,” Wyeth’s depiction of a boy racing out of control down the hill you see from the railroad crossing, pursued by his own dark shadow. From then on, Wyeth haunted the farm, painting its German immigrant owners, Karl and Anna Kuerner; painting the water trough in the barn (“Spring Fed”); painting a simple table set in front of a window (“Groundhog Day”); and, in the farmhouse’s low attic room with meat hooks in the ceiling, painting Helga. Again and again.
No surprise that when the region was under threat of rapid industrialization in the 1960s, Wyeth supported his friend and du Pont descendant George “Frolic” Weymouth in creating the conservancy, and that four years later he and Betsy were instrumental in founding the art museum, in which he remained actively involved until his death.
Across Route 1 and on the other side of the river from the museum is Chadds Ford Elementary — the school Wyeth’s sons attended. On a dank late-March afternoon, Vic Wyeth, 35, has come in to address a class of fourth-graders, telling them stories about her grandfather and how he painted the landscape they are being raised in. She’s not an artist herself, and she doesn’t like to visit her grandfather’s studio now that it’s a museum. But she speaks the way you’d imagine Andrew Wyeth painting. Full of energy, with thrusts and parries, and a generous spatter of his aphorisms.
“Art has no rules.”
“Believe in yourself.”
“I live to paint.”
The children are transfixed; their hands shoot up.
“We have ‘Christina’s World’ at home!”
“My parents have six of his paintings!”
The prints of America’s artist adorn the homes of the people who’ve moved to “Wyeth Country,” some following jobs and some in search of a simpler way of life. The population of Chadds Ford has grown to more than 3,000, from 700 in 1930 when Wyeth was a teenager. The change is felt in the posh new housing and the strip malls of “shoppes.”
“It’s horrible,” Karl Kuerner III, grandson of the German immigrant farmers, says of the development.
“I once asked Andy about that,” he continues, “about what his father and my grandfather would have thought. And, he said, ‘They’d be rolling in their graves.’ ”
Kuerner, 57, has given away his inheritance to the conservancy — the red bank barn, the white stucco farmhouse and the land he loves but can no longer look after. His father, now 87, still bales the hay — not the big round bales that modern farmers make, but oblong bales tied with two rows of twine. Apart from the hay bales and a couple of Nubian goats, it’s no longer a working farm, though.
And Karl Kuerner III is not a farmer. He’s an artist, taught to paint by Andrew Wyeth’s sister Carolyn. He’s built himself a house on the hill with a studio on the top floor and a sweeping view down toward his grandparents’ place. An unfinished painting is propped on the easel. It shows his grandfather’s farm from the road, painted from the viewpoint of an outsider looking in.
There’s a poignancy to the scene, but Kuerner is philosophical, even excited about the change. “It would be a crime to see this place torn down and developed,” he says. “All along, it belonged to the art world,” he continues. As part of the conservancy and with Logan’s vision, the landscape will inspire future generations of artists, future members of the Brandywine School. Kuerner plans to teach art students at the farm this summer.
For all the obsession with Andrew Wyeth, his immense talent and prodigious output, the glamor and the mystery, five years after his death he is part of a much longer story.
“As time goes on, [the Wyeths] will be in your rearview mirror,” Kuerner says.
Their stories will be shaped by the facts we know and the ones that have yet to emerge.
You can’t see the little white house called Zum Edelweiss from Kuerner’s studio. It’s a walk away, over the crest of the hill and just up from the railroad tracks where N.C. was killed.
It’s where Helga and her husband settled after they came to Chadds Ford in the 1960s. And it’s where reporters showed up 30 years ago to hunt for her when the “Helga Pictures” hit the news. The house, one of three on a shared driveway, looks a little unlived-in these days, though there’s a newish barn back there as well as a couple of cars and three white storage pods.
Now in her 70s, Helga sometimes shows up at the museum for lunch. But she rarely talks to reporters and didn’t respond to a phone call or a letter. Like the man who painted her, she is offered the kind of privacy this small town still affords.
“We always buffered them,” says Voula Skiadas, owner of Hank’s Place.
That doesn’t stop the speculation. Helga is known for taking notes, and some believe she’s writing a book. Others say she paints, and there is a 1988 Wyeth watercolor titled “Helga Painting,” though it’s not clear from the pose whether she is actually painting or perhaps reading.
Helga saves things, people say: She had to clear her clutter from the studio building before the museum took over, and she spends a lot of time sorting and storing it.
Lloyd Lisk, Wyeth’s old friend, helped her move, packing hats and shoes, news clippings and photos, magazines and books, from the kitchen, the basement, the upstairs. “A real potpourri,” he says. “Box after box after box.”
Helga is something of “a conservateur as far as Andy was concerned,” Lisk says. And then — like many other people who knew Wyeth well — he pauses.
“I’m not going to tell you all the secrets,” he says.
[The above article was originally published in the “Arts & Style” section (Section E) of the Washington Post on 27 April 2014. Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In runs from 4 May through 30 November at the National Gallery of Art, (202) 737-4215; www.nga.gov.
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“FROM WYETH, WINDOWS THAT LOOK IN ON A PRISON”
by Philip Kennicott
[After the Wyeth show at the National Gallery opened, the customary review of the exhibit came out in the Washington Post; I think it’s well worth completing this venture into the world of Andrew Wyeth by posting that notice. The review was originally published in the “Style” section (sec. C) of the Post on 28 May 2014.]
Visitors to the National Gallery of Art’s “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” are greeted by a masterpiece, the artist’s 1947 “Wind from the Sea,” which structures the whole exhibition. The theme is windows, their recurrence as icon in the painter’s oeuvre, their personal and sometimes hermetic meanings as metaphor, and the larger tension they set up between representation and abstraction in the some 60 paintings, watercolors and drawings on view.
Critics have been hating on Wyeth, who died in 2009, for at least a half-century, and much of the venom was fueled by art-world ideology. Wyeth committed at least two unpardonable sins, hewing to a realist style during an age of abstraction and irony, and achieving extraordinary popular success. One prominent detractor famously dubbed him “our greatest living ‘kitsch-meister.’ ”
“Wind from the Sea” makes it impossible to accept those reflexive judgments, but taken together with the other works in this exhibition, it doesn’t make it much easier to love Wyeth’s body of work. Admire? Absolutely. But the art remains emotionally and often visually monochromatic, even monomaniacal. Wyeth gives us window after window — meticulous and virtuoso renderings — and yet the exhibition feels claustrophobic. Despite the subtitle, “Looking Out, Looking In,” the effect is entirely the latter, it’s all looking in, and the in we are scrutinizing is strangely dreary and defeated.
“Wind from the Sea” was painted in the ramshackle, 18th-century house of Christina and Alvaro Olson, siblings and friends of Wyeth’s who lived on the coast of Maine. Wyeth was in an abandoned third-floor room of their house, looking out to the sea, when the wind suddenly rustled the tattered remains of a sheer curtain. Crocheted birds on the lacy fabric were caught momentarily in flight, and the painting is uncanny in its evocation of a numinous, fleeting instant of motion. Wyeth made a quick sketch, on the same sheet of paper on which he had been drawing Christina Olson.
Olson, a stoical, dignified woman who was disabled by polio, was a friend of Wyeth’s wife. She is referenced in the title of Wyeth’s most celebrated work, “Christina’s World,” which depicts a thin woman lying on parched grass, looking up a low rise to an old farmhouse. Wyeth admired her strength, and she became a frequent subject, or inspiration of his work. “You see before you the power of the queen of Sweden sitting there,” he once said of the woman of modest means from a remote stretch of Maine. Wyeth also said that “Wind from the Sea,” which is devoid of any tangible human presence, was a portrait of Christina.
It is likely that it was many more things as well. The diaphanous birds are a spectral presence, and if you study the way the lacy curtain evaporates into the bottom left of the picture, you see clearly that this is not strictly a realist or purely representational painting. Wyeth’s miraculous rendering of the main body of the fluttering curtain disintegrates into mere streaks of white paint; it is not a representation of a fraying curtain, but a frayed representation of a curtain. The fabric becomes a scrim seen against the hard, straight lines of the window frame, and one feels instantly certain that Wyeth aims to capture the disintegration of something far more profound than textile in the breeze.
You may wonder, perhaps, whether the delicate but rather cheap birds on the curtain represent the dissipating world of representational art, whether we are meant to feel the artist trapped within something that feels both like home and a prison, too, whether the moment captured is a self-conscious one: A man of immense talent, locked in the past, greatly skilled at weaving illusions that are no longer in fashion, suddenly wondered what he was doing, what his life would be about.
Perhaps it’s too speculative to connect all those dots, but the dots are certainly there throughout the rest of the exhibition, which feels locked in perpetual autumn or winter, preoccupied with isolation and decay, with windows and doors seemingly more about enclosing haunted interiors than revealing light and life out of doors. In one particularly effective 1962 watercolor, “The British at Brandywine,” a toy soldier with a few hints of red about his uniform turns his back on his peers and seems to stride resolutely toward a dark precipice. Who is that meant to be?
The curators of the exhibition emphasize the degree to which Wyeth is engaged with abstraction throughout these works. Wood, walls, grass, cracked plaster, rumpled bed linens, distant hills, and patches of sky are all rendered with great freedom, and if you put your nose close to the energetic confusion of paint in these parts of the image, you might believe you are witnessing small-scale irruptions of the more radical ideas that were in vogue in New York art circles at the time. But it is always contained, and often it is the geometry of the window that seems to keep it at bay.
This limited flirtation with messy gestures and abstract dynamism is rather like the use of atonality in Hollywood soundtracks, for dramatic effect and color, but not integral to the larger purpose of the work. And while Wyeth can be rather daring in these little sallies outside of the representational comfort zone, there are some rules he will never break.
Light and shadow, for example. No matter how far he pushes some ideas, no matter how much he bends the rules, he will never forgo a strict treatment of the play of light and shadow in these rooms, and across the forms contained therein. Illumination, so often the thrill of his greatest paintings, begins to feel like an obsession, or entrapment, as you see more and more of his lesser ones.
The exhibition is designed to drive the viewer deeper into Wyeth’s technique, his variations and elaboration of recurring themes and subjects. But the cumulative reductionism of his work, the austerity of its dun-colored palette, dulls the mind more than it sharpens the eye. Compare the experience of looking at a lot of Wyeth with looking at Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross,” a series of purely abstract paintings in black and white, made more than a decade later. Both are hermetic. But the cumulative impact of Newman’s work drives one deeper into its small variations and details while giving a sense of transparency to something beyond.
Wyeth, who banished modernity and people from these paintings, drives you away from his own work, and leaves you feeling entirely shut into the gallery space, and shut out of his life. There is a masterpiece here, but it remains as cold and isolated as the Maine coast on which it was made.
[In a few days, I’ll post my archival report on the 2004 visits to Winterthur and The Brandywine Museum. ROTters are invited to come back to catch this companion article.]