Throughout my art-life, “my” Wyeth was always N.C. — heroic illustrator of favorite childhood books, setting me on fire over Arthur the King, Robin Hood, Mohicans, and pirates.
In recent years, however, being an ongoing member of the stunning Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, I have been falling under the spell of Andrew, N.C.’s son. Particularly his watercolors, which I first encountered at the Whitney in Manhattan, in the 1970s. One New Year’s Day, Andrew still alive at that time, a friend and I were arrested before Andy’s eye-popping, soul-stirring most recent work. It turned out to be his last — a portrait through Andrew’s windshield of a man on a Harley Davidson. Even through all that heavy leather, we could feel every muscle revving, sense the rider’s acute resentment at that red light overhead. Titled “Stop,” we felt even then that this electrifying scene revealed Andrew’s attitude toward death itself.
N.C. and Andrew and his son Jamie live on, of course, upon the handsome restored mill walls of the Brandywine River Museum. Within a short ride of the museum are the N.C. Wyeth House and Studio, the Andrew Wyeth Studio, and the Kuerner Farm, where Andrew found the subject of his first painting at age 15 and then many more.
Some readers may realize that Brandywine River Museum is also a critically needed land conservancy, as the world that inspired the Wyeths falls weekly to the machinations of developers.
Visiting the Kuerner Farm (through appointments made at the Museum), one feels Andrew at every turn, inside the house, out on the hill he ran down after his father’s tragic death. But Andrew’s presence has never been more palpable than now. He and the family rigorously guarded privacy throughout their lives and works in the Brandywine River Valley. But now we outsiders may transgress, as Andrew’s studio has been restored and is open by appointment.
Free transportation is provided with the $8 entry fee, from the museum to Andy’s hermitage, as to N.C.’s epicenter and the iconic Kuerner Farm. Quiet, capacious, air-conditioned buses with kindly knowledgeable drivers serve as magic carpets into these once-so-very-private sites.
Being inside Andrew’s hideaway was like entering a kaleidoscope of family, political and art history, while someone is continually turning the lens. There is even a video of Jamie on his recent purposeful visit, reminiscing in the newly restored kitchen, on life and art in that former one-room schoolhouse.
My favorite image is Andy’s apron, hanging haphazardly, as though he himself had just removed and left it there. And maybe he did, since his working studio is intentionally kept as when he was at the easel. The muffin-tin-like palette in which he mixed his tempera takes center stage, a carton of imitation eggs beside it so that the docent may explain the tempera process. Crumpled drafts adorn the weathered floor. The front of that apron is smudged with brush-strokes of muted paints, mostly winter tones, with hint of first spring. The apron itself is worthy of a painting.
The most unexpected view was that of Andrew’s tempera powders, in sturdy matching glass jars, spanning the north window, which he arranged to have put in when the Wyeths moved into that schoolhouse. Legendary north light winked through his tempera jars, shadows and tints fanning along the windowsill.
Andrew doesn’t fit into any “school” — not in retrospect and most intentionally not while he was alive. Even so, not even the Impressionists were more compelled to paint light than he. His light just happen to fall on Pennsylvania’s rolling hills, the rigorous faces of Christina in Maine and the very similar Mr. and Mrs. Kuerner in Pennsylvania. With the precision of Albrecht Durer, Andrew Wyeth seemed to carve those stark Kuerner outbuildings, hungry cattle, neighboring dogs, blueberries in moss, chestnuts roasting in a towering drum, and, oh yes, those startling late nudes.
I agree with friends who say of the Barnes, “too many Renoirs.” And the trouble with most of those Renoir nudes is that they tend to look alike. At Renoir’s studio (in the south of France), I learned that he chose his models for the ways in which Provence light bounced off his olive tree leaves onto their skin.
No one really knows how Andrew Wyeth chose his models. But one thing for sure, those women are not interchangeable. They are also iconic — representing rarities of spring to this specialist of winter.
Jamie Wyeth, now 66, has a significant role in his father’s restored studio. It served as the family home, so Jamie actually lived there. He also painted there, in a room adjacent to Andrew’s.
Just a few weeks ago, Jamie was at Chadds Ford, supervising the placement of every item in his own reconstructed surroundings. There is reference to his mesmerizing “Draft Age” in Jamie’s area, as well as the process of creating President Kennedy’s posthumous portrait at that family’s request. Here, too, are photographs and drafts, paints hither and yon, a mirror to help the youngster see hidden realities as he brought our dead president back to life on canvas. As I recall, Jamie was not yet 20 when he turned out both those masterpieces.
Docents at the Brandywine River Museum are well versed, frequently knew the family, and can tip over into passionate. Some, I have learned, are artists themselves. Everything is done at Andrew’s, at N.C.’s and at the Kuerners’, to convey Wyeth reality.
The art of Andrew on the Brandywine River Museum’s walls now comprises works completed in that newly restored studio. It’s most effective to see the art after learning how it came to be within those nearby walls.
Give yourself this treat of standing where art history was made by three nearby generations.
Getting there: My journey down there is prettier than the I-95 option — Route 1 South to I-295 South to 322 West over the Commodore Barry Bridge ($5), then south/left onto Route 1 to the Brandywine Museum [on left after light in Chadds Ford]. Coming back turn right off of Route 1 onto Route 202 and hook up with I-95. Allow more than an hour — but less than an hour and a half — for the trip.
The article above has been posted in slightly different form on Princeton Patch.